While systemic change is needed to change the way that society perceives and accommodates disabilities, assistive technology (AT) can help people live autonomously and freely within an inaccessible world. However, not enough progress has been made to make AT available to those who need it. AT is usually very expensive, meaning it is only available to high socio-economic groups or via charities. These premium prices can prevent the inclusivity that AT sets out to achieve.

The world is inherently inaccessible for disabled people. Societal, communication, systemic, and infrastructural barriers further restrict the disabled community, excluding them from many different aspects of society.

The world is systemically anti-disabled

Society is inherently ableist and anti-disabled. This means that infrastructure, communication channels, and systemic policies like government employment policies all exist in a way that works for able people but creates barriers for disabled people.

Infrastructural barriers consist of buildings and environments not accommodating wheelchair access by design, thus being physically inaccessible to disabled people. Systemic barriers include the laws and policies by governments and organizations that discriminate against disabled people, for example, not creating an environment where disabled people are able to complete their day-to-day job due to inadequate adjustments.

Assistive technology can help

Assistive technology (AT) has the potential to transform patients’ lives, creating mechanisms for disabled people to feel more autonomous and mobile in a currently inaccessible world.

Swiss company Scewo created an off-road wheelchair called BRO. The wheelchair operates on two wheels and is self-balancing, allowing it to move over lots of different types of terrain, and climb stairs at a rate of 30 stairs per minute. This allows users to navigate any infrastructural issues and get around in the event of broken lifts or where ramps are unavailable. The chair can also be raised up to eye level height, meaning the user is not being looked down on and allowing them to reach high shelves independently at supermarkets.

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Smartphone apps are also being developed to assist disabled people. XRAI has created an app that integrated with Nreal AR smart glasses. The app creates subtitles in real life, allowing the words to appear in the wearer’s field of vision as they are being spoken to. This is revolutionary for hearing-impaired people who rely on lip reading, as it means they can communicate with people, even if they are standing behind them for instance.

Another AT smartphone app is Waymap, a wayfinder app helping vision-impaired people navigate new places independently. Waymap uses audio prompts and is accurate to one meter inside and outside, using an algorithm called TRACE that utilizes sensors and accurate maps.

Premium prices prevent inclusivity

Assistive technology can assist and improve day-to-day activities, but there can be a large financial barrier to entry. AT is usually very expensive, causing it to be inaccessible to most people. While the technology itself is trying to create a more inclusive world, premium prices can prevent the inclusivity AT sets out to achieve.

For example, Scewo’s BRO wheelchair is very technologically advanced but comes with a premium price point of GBP32,100 (USD$39439). Another example is the OrCam Learn, a pen-sized tool that scans pages and reads them back to students, which is a great tool for students with visual impairments and reading and learning challenges. However, the tool costs GBP399 (USD$ 490) and has a yearly subscription of GBP468 (USD$575), making it out of reach for stretched school budgets.

Investment is needed in assistive technology

Mobile phone apps like Waymap and XRAI could be perceived as being more accessible, however, they still require the user to already own a smartphone or smart glasses. Policymakers, governments, and large companies should invest in AT, making it available to more people regardless of socio-economic position. This will yield positive economic results. According to ATScale, providing AT to those who need it would generate $10 trillion over the next 55 years.

More than this, AT at an accessible price point or provided by healthcare providers would allow disabled people to feel more autonomous, independent, and accepted in a currently ableist world.