Assistive technology (2006)
“Assistive technology” refers to technological devices to assist and support people with disabilities as a consequence of sensorial, motorial, cognitive, emotional, or mental problems. Examples of assistive technology are wheelchairs, hearing aids, prostheses, especially adapted computer displays, etc. Assistive technology is a field were lots of important technological developments are taking place: robotics, electronics, information and communication technology become more and more important. Epidemiologically speaking, the number of chronic diseases is increasing, but here, assistive technology can come to help. And the sharp rise in the proportion of elderly people will also bring about more care dependency, but assistive technology can help them to live independently for a longer time.
A cochlear implant is another example of assistive technology. This electronic hearing device helps hearing impaired or deaf children to learn to hear and speak, thereby enabling them to go to a regular school. Nevertheless, there might also be objections to the idea of inclusive education. Besides, people do not always want such a cochlear implant.
The new assistive devices are technologically very advanced. They can help persons with a mental handicap or people in need of care to communicate. The technology will also be integrated in the environment, for instance for monitoring demented elderly. This gives rise to lots of questions. Is this ethically acceptable? Who will pay for it?
Societal developments ask for further reflection on the use of these appliances.
viWTA asked the research consortium Tempera/VUB-MESO to organize a short-term project to take a look into the societal issues connected with assistive technology and asked them to what extent the connection between technological developments and social questions could be relevant for the Flemish policy-making and the public at large. The study was based on a literature search and a hearing of the relevant stakeholders. viWTA asked twenty Flemish experts from the social service sector, technicians and politicians to explain their views on the participation of handicapped persons and others and the role that technology could play in this question. All the views were bundled into a viWTA dossier that has been presented to the Flemish Parliament during a lunch debate on April 26, 2007. Els Van den Cruyce (viWTA) presented the results of the inquiry. The Flemish Member of Parliament Helga Stevens gave a tentative answer from a political perspective. Members of the expert panel were Maartje De Meulder (Federation of Flemish Deaf Organizations), Birgit Morlion (Interdisciplinary Institute for Broadband technology), Mark Leys (Vrije Universiteit Brussels, Department of Medical Sociology), and Jan Verbelen (Research Cell Flemish Agency for the Disabled).
viWTA’s 7th dossier describes the big social challenges connected with assistive technologies. First, three cases are discussed: cochlear implants, robotics and ambient assistive living. In The final chapter, the societal considerations associated with assistive technology are summarized in five great lines of force:
- The user needs: the manufacturers of assistive technology do not always know their users very well
- The effectiveness of assistive technology: people are insufficiently acquainted with the proper use and the results of certain aids. The users do not always know the technology offer very well.
- Economic preconditions: the market for aiding equipment is a niche market, which means that in a welfare state, the authorities have to play their role here.
- Organizational preconditions: the technological developments ask for the implementation of extra infrastructure in the social services.
- Ethical considerations with respect to assistive technology:
- Disability or environment: we need (to call attention to) a debate about whether technology should adjust individuals or on the contrary the environment must adapt itself to the individual.
- Usefulness and desirability of technological aids: how to make a distinction between necessary and advisable care?
- Accessibility: more and more assistive technology becomes available but not everyone has the same access to it.
- How to deal with personal information: the introduction and the use of technology which gathers, stores, links and analyzes lots of information, should be accompanied by a discussion about what happens or should (not) happen with the gathered profiles.