The Death of “Assistive” Technology

By Sean Henderson, Person-Centered Technology Manager

Sean HendersonThe first time I saw an iPhone was at a concert sometime in 2007. The owner lifted the phone to take a picture, turned it horizontally, and, like magic, the screen rotated! I was completely awestruck! I started pondering why a person would need all of those features and applications. I already have an alarm clock, a note pad, a (cheap) digital camera, and my Nokia brick cellphone…What would I need a smartphone for? It took me nearly three years to put away my disdain for the average smartphone user and jump on the bandwagon, and I haven’t looked back since. I didn’t know what I was missing.

In my opinion, this can be said for nearly every technological advancement we’ve made as a species. We had no idea what we were missing until some crazy guy had the audacity, and perhaps the stupidity, to jump on the back of horse. The same could be said for the person that decided to make a self-propelled death-trap with wheels which feeds off of an incredibly toxic and highly flammable liquid used to create tiny controlled explosions inside a metal box as the propellant. Today, cars and trucks are common enough that we barely even consider them a kind of technology. They dominate roadways because we depend on their assistance in getting us to the places we need or want to go. And that, friends, is what the technological bell curve of acceptance looks like.

tech bell curveThe crazy people (or innovators as they’re sometimes called) invent new technology and use it. Early adopters wait until a few major glitches are fixed then buy in. The early and late majority buy in to “keep up with the Joneses” once the price falls. Finally, the laggards buy in when it’s absolutely necessary and/or their previous options become obsolete. These folks would be my eccentric uncle who refused to buy a cell phone until his job made him get one because his landline was shut down, or my father who still considers WiFi radio waves damaging to his health.

In our world of providing people with disabilities the opportunity to experience life to its fullest, technology for the people we support was, and still is, difficult to find. In the past, the innovators were the software designers who could make a talking computer for their brother to speak through, or a father who wired up a big button to turn on the television for his daughter. Instead of these technologies reaching out to many, it stops at that one person. Why? Well, technology used for people with disabilities frequently requires a high degree of customization for the specified individual and isn’t necessarily for the general disabled population. Here, we witness the birth of assistive technology, which I think of as a single advancement made for a single individual.

30 years later, with the mass acceptance of the internet and devices like tablets and computers, we can use a single advancement for multiple people. We can use one thing to help someone remember to take medications, keep them connected to loved ones, ensure safety and security through GPS, talk through communication devices, and even play Angry Birds when bored. This turns the notion of assistive technology on its head; we have started to make technology for everyone.


I say we keep pushing forward with this idea. Let’s continue forward together with the goal of making all technology accessible by everyone! Isn’t all technology assistive, adaptive, and rehabilitative by nature? I don’t call my iPad assistive technology. So, why call it assistive when a person with a disability uses one? We’ve shed the terms “consumers” and “residents” because we know that people are just people, whether abled or disabled. In the same way, let’s shed the “assistive” label in technology. This is not the death of technology used to assist us, but the demise of a term that has the potential to divide us.


  1. Julane

    Nicely done, Sean! I appreciate the greater perspective on technology and its impact on all our lives. Thank you! Julane

  2. tom vossen

    cool to read article. sheds light. we are all, all of us, both capable/vulnerable…vulnerable/capable….not necessarily in that disorder!

  3. Ellen

    Well said Sean. So great to have your fresh perspective at work at Hammer everyday.

  4. Suzanne

    Excellent points made on the topic – thanks Sean!


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