Comment from Clive: We need more transparency about the pros and cons of technologies

clive-gilbertResearch tells us that most assistive technology equipment is abandoned, often within the first year. Products frequently fail to match consumer expectations for effectiveness, durability, comfort and ease of use.

But it would be too simplistic to think these problems were entirely down to the products themselves. Just as purchasing a car involves weighing up a wish list of features unique to the circumstances of each buyer; the question of, say, which eyegaze-enabled tablets to plump for can rest on a plethora of considerations ranging from the capabilities of the device itself to wheelchair mounting options.

There are two main ways in which people acquire assistive technology:

1) They buy their own equipment
2) They get it through a public service such as their local council or a charity which makes the purchase on their behalf.

In both cases the end user must rely to some degree on the advice of a relatively small group of experts, whether it is the vendor who is directly supplying the equipment or another professional.

Too often such purchases rely on narrow functional assessments of the user’s needs which do not always take in the context in which the device would be used, or the customer’s own opinions, values and beliefs. While with some small acquisitions the impact of choosing the wrong product might be trivial, in many cases a poor decision will lead to a range of avoidable negative outcomes such as a reduced functional ability, independence and community integration, device breakdowns and injury.

The problem is that, unlike the bevy of magazines and websites available to help motorists make their minds up, there are few places assistive technology users can go to research their next purchase (notwithstanding dispATches, of course).

Spreading the word

Part of the solution is to allow for a franker discourse about what different products can do and for whom. However, objective evaluations of most types of assistive technologies are few and far between. One area where rigorous studies of the effectiveness and outcomes associated with equipment is routine is that of wheelchairs for sports and rehabilitation. Systematic research has led to innovation as well as a strong understanding of the impact of different designs on a range of factors including: strength, stability and stress reduction.  Assistive technologies of all types should be put through their paces in this way.

Also, some specialist knowledge of the pros and cons of different devices is locked away in the heads of assistive technology practitioners. Both empirical results and expert opinion should be made more readily available to the wider public. With the advent of blogs, Twitter and other types of communication platforms, there are no excuses for restricting at least some of this knowledge to a privileged few.

A second approach to improving the volume of information about assistive technologies would be for designers to tap into bigger markets with more universal designs. Assistive technology products are often made with a specific set of user requirements in mind. As a result, many products are niche devices catering to a small segment of potential users and there is little incentive to test how well they actually perform.

In 2012, a group of researchers proposed the EMFASIS framework, comprising a set of design principles for assistive technologies to help designers extend the usefulness of their products beyond their initial target users. If more technology makers adopted universal design, there would be more opportunities to test their products and increase public knowledge of their capabilities.

By opening up assistive technologies to more scrutiny, assistive technology professionals can make sure they are truly putting the service user first.

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