According to a 1999 report issued by the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 1.6 percent of Americans would not be able to hear a car approaching if they were crossing the street — if assistive medical technologies had not been developed, that is.
Assistive technology can be seen almost anywhere today, from people using wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs to the closed captioning that comes standard on a typical television today.
The medical technology field consists of two separate parts. The first is biomedical technology, which focuses on saving lives and temporarily dealing with acute injuries. The second part is assistive, or rehabilitative, technology that primarily deals with long-term disabilities and improving the quality of life for the disabled.
Rory Cooper, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Human Engineering Research Laboratories, said that assistive technology is a “scientific and clinical understanding of the interaction of people and the importance of fitting the technology for the user.”
Standard assistive technologies include wheelchairs, canes and crutches, and communication devices. These devices facilitate and promote independent living for those with permanent disabilities or injuries. Assistive technology’s main goal is to try to restore a normal, functioning lifestyle for disabled persons.
With developments in medical practice and biomedical technology, patient survival has risen dramatically since World War II, when the federal government first initiated formal research and development programs for biomedicine. Recently, the application of computers in the field has led to numerous technological advances.
“Personal computers had just begun to become commercial, and the use of microprocessors was slowly becoming integrated with rehabilitative technology,” said Mark Friedman, an adjunct biomedical engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon.
For example, the hearing aid is a common form of assistive technology, but it did not always incorporate electronic components.
A hearing aid from the late 18th and 19th centuries consisted of a long tube with a flared, horn end directing sounds to the patient’s ear. In contrast, its modern relative now utilizes micro-electronics to deliver an extremely mobile hearing system for patients.
Wheelchairs have also experienced technological improvements. In the past, wheelchairs were constructed from heavy steel or wood frames with leather cushioning. Now, wheelchairs are constructed from lightweight metals, such as aluminum or titanium alloys, to make transportation much less taxing on the user.
Wheelchairs can now also be juiced up. Some use motors to drive the wheels. Power wheelchairs utilize electronic technology to read user input from a joystick, which controls the wheel motors to propel the wheelchair in a specified direction.
But having the latest technology usually comes with a large price tag.
Friedman said that many of his students approach assistive technology with a skeptical eye. “Students look at technology and say that they can do it for much less. What they fail to realize is that the technology must be robust, intuitive, reliable, serviceable, and marketable.”
And medical centers now accommodate people who need assistive technology. The Center for Assistive Technology at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center is one such facility. According to the center’s website, it helps people function normally with their disabilities by providing them with assistive technologies such as wheelchairs, speech output devices, and even recreational devices like specialized skis and cycles.
Friedman and Cooper observe certain similar trends in the use of assistive technology. Due to drastic improvements in health care, more people now require assistive technology to help overcome their disabilities, which means a more diverse user population.
New models of existing devices are beginning to account for the many variations in patient age and disability type, such as technologies for disabled infants and for people with obesity problems.