A middle aged man in a wheelchair watches as a younger woman demonstrates an iPad.

Physical disabilities: technology

If you have a physical disability or experience reduced mobility in later life, assistive technology (AT) can help you to reclaim your independence and lead a more fulfilling life. The term AT covers a diverse range of equipment—everything from mobility aids, drinking mugs, cutlery and gardening tools with adapted handles to environmental controls that enable you to operate computers, door openers and other domestic fixtures...all from a single device designed to meet your needs.

The good news is that the cost of certain types of AT has declined and the power of personal computers has increased. Meanwhile, smartphones and tablets provide easy access to a wide variety of apps designed to make daily life a little bit easier. There are apps that help you to stay in touch with loved ones, plan your day, find your way around an unfamiliar place and even speak on your behalf.

However, choosing the equipment or software applications that match your needs can still be a challenge. Simply knowing that a problem you are experiencing could be resolved by AT can be an obstacle. And being aware of the possible benefits of AT may not be enough.

There may be many products that can meet your needs. Some products are very expensive. Occasionally, you might need to talk to an expert before buying new equipment.

But the benefits of the right piece of equipment can be huge, especially if technology can open doors to a more active social life as well as educational and employment opportunities.

Types of AT

There are so many different types of physical disabilities that it's not surprising that the range of AT is equally broad. There are a number of key categories of equipment that you should know about. 

Mobility aids are possibly the most instantly recognisable form of AT.  Wheelchairs come in many shapes and sizes, but one important feature is that they can either be manual (meaning that you can either be pushed or propel yourself using your upper body strength), or powered, allowing you to be in the driving seat regardless of any limited movement or coordination issues that might be caused by your disability. 

Walking sticks and Zimmer frames represent another type of mobility aid that will allow you to walk if you require support.

Hoists are perhaps a less obvious member of the mobility aid family. These can help carers to lift you from, say, your wheelchair to your bed in a safe and dignified way. 

Products that enable you to access computers have made much progress in recent years. With the help of adaptive switches, specialist joysticks, speech recognition tools or eye tracking devices, it is now possible to make the most of the digital age whatever your impairment. By combining accessible hardware with onscreen keyboards and other software programmes that let you control the cursor and navigate the screen by alternative means, you are free to send emails, surf the Internet, watch movies and even play games. 

Computer technology can also make you more independent by giving you control over your surroundings and helping you communicate with others. For example, telecare equipment can support you to live at home without the constant presence of a care assistant by providing you with ways of getting in touch with family, friends and support workers, if you need help. 

There are also environmental control devices that allow you to operate everyday equipment in your immediate vicinity. This means you can control things like televisions, windows and curtains using a single control unit. 

With so much sophisticated technology available, it is easy to become fixated on the flashiest pieces of kit. Fortunately, AT is not always big and expensive. Daily living aids such as grab rails for toilets and shower rooms, adjustable furniture and beds and adapted kitchen utensils and gardening tools are examples of the low-tech products that fall squarely into the AT camp.

Searching for AT

Finding the best place to go to purchase AT can be tricky. Not only are there many different types of equipment on the market, but there are also lots of different organisations and companies that supply their own range of products. Luckily, there are some useful resources you can turn to in your search. 

Independent Living is a website that provides a catalogue containing a full range of aids to daily living, mobility and independence. It also sends out a free newsletter covering the latest developments in independent living.

The Disabled Living Foundation (DLF) is a national charity that gives advice, information and training on independent living issues, including AT. It offers a range of online resources designed to help you navigate the different types of equipment, providers and sources of charitable funding. For more sites that can help, visit our Physical disabilities: at home page and scroll down on the page to check out what other home accessories are available.

If you own a Facebook account, the learning disability charity Norwood maintains a group that shares news and advice about AT. Just search Facebook for Norwood Assistive Technology—PATHWAYS.

Publicly funded AT providers

Central and local government finance services are mandated to provide you with AT under certain circumstances. These services offer access to expert assessors and take the financial burden of acquiring and maintaining the equipment off your shoulders. 

The NHS is required by law to ensure that you have access to certain AT if you need it. The NHS can provide wheelchairs, specialist communication aids and environmental controls as long as you meet the relevant non-means-tested eligibility criteria. You can ask your GP for a referral to these services.

Charities that can help

There are a number of organisations operating around the UK that can support your access to AT.

AbilityNet is a national charity dedicated to helping disabled people access digital technologies at home and in the workplace by offering free services to disabled individuals and their families, friends, carers, teachers and employers. 

Similarly, the Aidis Trust exists to help empower disabled people by using AT to help them communicate, become more independent and less socially isolated. It can support you to access computer technology through its training services.

Sometimes you will struggle to find anything on the market that does exactly what you want. A handful of charities employ creative engineers who will design and build a custom-made device that serves your specific set of requirements, usually free of charge. 

One such charity is Demand, an organisation that will work with anyone with a disability to create, modify or refurbish equipment that makes their lives easier or helps them to enjoy sports and leisure activities. Special Effect also helps to create customised devices but focuses on enabling disabled people to play video gamesDesignability also engineers bespoke AT, but prefers to do so when there is likely to be wider demand for the resulting product beyond your own situation.

Listen to this page: