How Technology Aids Families with Disabilities
We live in a world where technological advances are an everyday occurrence. We can see this in advertisements, scholarly journal articles, the news, and even social media. For disabled persons, there are several different types of technologies depending on your need. A sound plays when we are at a crosswalk, we can wear noise-canceling headphones if we have sensory issues, and we can even control robotic limbs with our minds. For parents of disabled persons, it can be very overwhelming to research technologies to help support their children. To add to that, when we think of “technology,” we usually think of devices or software. However, the reality is that technology also can include certain types of therapies or evaluations. Because of the overflowing number of options, where can a parent even start?
When digging into the world of technology needs, the first place will likely be what types of support are needed for their child. In order to better understand what technologies would benefit them, a diagnostic evaluation needs to be completed. A diagnostic evaluation is completed by a medical doctor, psychologist, or other specialists. When an official diagnosis is provided, the evaluator will likely make certain recommendations for therapies which may include speech, occupational, behavioral, etc. Once a parent has information about the diagnosis of their child, they can move on to finding some technologies that may help with the symptoms.
The second step is for parents to know the difference between an Evidence-Based Practice (EBP) and one that has not been proven to support the symptoms of the diagnosis. An EBP or technology is supported by peer-reviewed research, where an experiment shows that it has been effective in a controlled environment.
Some examples of evidence-based technologies are communication systems like a Proloquo or Touchchat. These technologies are based on visual communication systems proven to help individuals communicate their wants and needs. As parents, it can be difficult to know whether or not what they are using is evidence-based technology.
With this, the parents will want to consult with the therapeutic providers that the doctor recommended. This is the third step. Those different therapy providers may recommend different technologies, as well. Additionally, the therapists will complete evaluations that are catered to the type of therapy they provide and will be able to recommend different technologies within their areas of expertise. For instance, a speech pathologist may recommend a Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) for communication needs, or an ABA provider might recommend a verbal behavior approach (Mary Barbera). Both of these are EBPs, however, they look very different. This is why it is always best to have therapy providers collaborate with each other to promote consistent technology choices for the child. It’s always best to take a team approach and discuss the most effective technologies for a child in an interdisciplinary meeting.
Here is a more inclusive list of technologies that can support disabled persons. The family will need to have discussions with their providers about which technology will be appropriate for the child, as each recommendation should be individualized and based on the child’s specific deficits.
- Communicative or hearing aids like iCommunicate for the iPad, LetMeTalk, or cochlear implants.
- Mobility aids like walkers, non-skid rugs, wheelchairs, or gait trainers.
- Sensory aids like noise-cancelling headphones, toys, chewies, and support for stereotypy needs.
- Visual aids like Braille, eye-tracking devices, and schedule or routines boards.
- Hygienic and daily living aids like bath chairs, vehicle safety buckles, and adaptive utensils.
- Behavioral aids like contracts, rules, and reward systems.
The fourth step is for parents to consistently review the effects that the selected technologies have on the quality-of-life changes for their child. From a behavioral provider’s perspective, this should occur on at least a monthly basis. Just because a technology is rooted in science does not mean that it is an EBP for the child or family. It needs to be effective for that specific child to alleviate the symptoms of their diagnosis. For example, a parent finds out from their pediatrician that their 2-year-old child is diagnosed with autism. Their 2-year-old has repetitive behaviors, has issues visually scanning, and appears to be developmentally below average in language and motor skills. Their pediatrician recommends behavioral, occupational, physical, and speech therapies. Once the parents are able to set up all therapies, they should request a monthly collaboration with themselves and all providers together to discuss progress made and collaborate on more effective technologies if progress is not seen.
An important consideration when finding some technologies that best meet the needs of a child is to keep in mind that it won’t be a “quick fix” or “magic pill”. Disabled persons may have complex conditions that require more than one technology to support them effectively. The teams may also need to focus on certain needs. In the previous scenario, motor skills and the development of language may be prioritized over deficits in visual scanning or repetitive behaviors. Additionally, if the repetitive behaviors are not impacting the child’s quality of life, it may not be ethical to provide any treatments for these symptoms. However, the teams may choose to recommend a technology to help improve any dangerous repetitive behaviors. For example, the child can use a chewy if they have any oral fixations as this would be more hygienic than mouthing random objects in a room. The question parents and therapeutic teams need to ask themselves is, “What technology can we recommend that would have the most impact with the least amount of change to the child?”
In our last article, we mentioned some specific laws related to advocating for disability rights and overcoming biases. These laws are also relevant to making sure our children have access to the technologies they need to navigate the world around them. For example, if a disabled person works at a large grocery store chain and is in need of closed captions for training videos, the employer (depending on the size of the organization) will be required to provide alternative methods in training per the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Or, if a child is obtaining education in the public school system, the school district is required to provide accommodations for learning under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Some of these accommodations, or technologies, include transportation supports, communication software supports, or any other adaptive materials.
Overall, families with disabilities have many kinds of technologies and laws that can support them in making them more successful. It can be overwhelming to sift through the amount available, and very frustrating if time and money is spent and it still isn’t helping. Parents will need to rely on their therapeutic providers to help support them in making decisions about which technologies will work without being overwhelming to the child or too high of a cost. The good news is that scientists are developing new technologies all the time that can increase the quality of life of disabled persons!
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This post originally appeared on our January/February 2022 Magazine