How assistive technology can help those with disabilities get through a crisis

20 Mar 2020942 Views

Image: © Viacheslav Iakobchuk/Stock.adobe.com

For those living with disabilities and their families, the assistive technology that many of us take for granted becomes essential.

As social distancing becomes the new, unfamiliar norm in many parts of the world, social media has been awash with ways to entertain ourselves online. But for those most vulnerable to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic – such as those living with disabilities – the internet takes on an even greater role.

Assistive technology (AT) has been around for some time and devices such as hearing aids would be familiar to many, for example. But more recently, Enable Ireland has began collating a blog page of creative uses for everyday technologies that can support people with disabilities, their families and those who support them during the current pandemic.

Led by Enable Ireland’s manager for assistive technology, Siobhán Long, the ATandMe blog is a catalogue of ideas to not only provide a distraction, but also limit social isolation.

Some suggestions will be familiar to many, such as creating WhatsApp or Viber groups. For instance, disability services could set up a group chat or series of groups to help those staying indoors to keep in touch.

Smart speakers and AI personal assistants are also seen as being a great way for those with limited mobility or sight. The Amazon Echo device – through the Alexa assistant – can allow other Echo users to ‘drop in’ and chat with someone through the device.

However, there are other suggestions that many might not think of. For example, one suggestion is to set up an online radio station. If a number of people decide to set one up, they could play music, have on-air chats or share the latest news relevant to them.

Or perhaps those who live in rural areas with access to isolated nature walks can take those unable to leave home on virtual photo tours.

Speaking with Siliconrepublic.com, Long said that while the list of ideas has just started, she hopes to update it daily with new ideas to help those most vulnerable get through these unprecedented times.

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“The response has been really positive so far,” Long said. “We’ve had a lot of people get in touch to say how relieved they are to see what practical steps they can take.

“This would be both from staff who are working across the country, but also from families who are seeing the benefits of using mainstream technologies to strengthen or build communications that they might not have had before.”

While this may not be the first time that the people Enable Ireland helps have used, say, WhatsApp or Facebook, social distancing and staying at home can bring a new set of challenges.

“[These technologies are] not being used in ways that could be really beneficial to enable us to deliver remote services, for example,” she said.

“Video conferencing wouldn’t have been used that widely before, particularly when it comes to how you can use Skype or other platforms creatively to deliver services and training.

“I think disability services potentially have a huge amount to gain from the awful circumstances that everybody finds themselves in if they take the technology seriously and see what they can do remotely.”

Crucial timing

The timing of this new resource hub is vital, Long said, as Ireland’s national online resource for AT – AssistIreland – was shut down in December 2019. In its explanation, the Citizens Information Board said this was due to “resource constraints”.

“It’s 2020, can you believe it?” Long said. “It was covering everything from the high-tech services, down to walking sticks and things to help you open your tin of beans. It was just a really, really important resource.”

However, Enable Ireland is optimistic of where its collaborations with Big Tech will go, particularly with Microsoft. The advocacy group recently teamed up with the tech giant to develop an ‘AT Passport’. This would provide a personal record of all the relevant information about an individual’s requirement for assistive technology, including the necessary referrals, eligibility and training requirements.

Speaking at its recent launch, Enable Ireland CEO John O’Sullivan said the AT Passport will be “less ambiguous for users to access the support and training they require”.

Colm Gorey is a senior journalist with Siliconrepublic.com

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