Adaptive & Assistive Technology: Definition & Uses

Instructor: Rocco Arizzi

Rocco has a PhD. in Electrical Engineering, a graduate certificate in Cybersecurity, and has taught university Math, Physics, Engineering, and Computer Science.

Learn about adaptive and assistive technologies and how they help people with disabilities live more independently, participate in education, and perform job functions.

Adaptive & Assistive Technology

There are many different types of disabilities that may prevent individuals from being able to perform certain basic functions on their own. These functions can be related to everyday activities that most people take for granted, such as walking, seeing, hearing, speaking or just being able to grasp or lift objects. The inability to perform these functions not only affects the independence of individuals with disabilities, but may interfere with their education or employment. The lives of people with disabilities have improved drastically over the last few decades. The innovative application of technology has helped people with disabilities perform essential functions on their own. From simple wheelchairs to advanced speech recognition and home automation, Adaptive and Assistive Technology has helped millions of people gain independence and employment.

Adaptive vs. Assistive

Assistive technology is a general term referring to any type of technology, device, or tool that assists an individual in performing a function that they would otherwise not be able to perform. The most common examples of assistive technologies are mobility devices such as wheelchairs, walkers, and crutches that help people who are unable to walk on their own. Other examples include hearing aids for the hearing impaired and special walking canes for the blind.

Adaptive technology is a type of assistive technology where existing tools are adapted for use by individuals with disabilities. For example, someone without full use of their arms or hands can use a speech recognition system or a special camera that follows the user's eye movement instead of a computer keyboard. Other examples include modified driving controls for vehicles and special telephone devices for the deaf.

Some technologies are purely assistive but many are both adaptive and assistive.

Mobility Equipment

A common form of assistive technology is equipment to help those who are mobility impaired. Manually operated and motorized wheelchairs allow people who are unable to walk or have significant difficulty walking get around. Over the decades, wheelchairs have become very advanced. They are now made with lightweight materials and computerized control systems. Millions of people throughout the world use wheelchairs on a daily basis to enhance their independence. Crutches, walkers, and canes are also available to help those who have difficulty walking.

example of a vintage manual wheelchair and in modern motorized wheelchair
A vintage manual and modern electric wheelchair

Highly advanced mobility equipment is beginning to emerge that helps people who are unable to walk stand and walk using a powered exoskeleton. This technology is an adaptation of research prototypes from the defense industry that were intended to help soldiers carry heavy loads across terrain.

A prototype of a powered exoskeleton
a military powered armor prototype

Sensory Equipment

Hearing and vision impairments are common. Assistive technology, such as hearing aids and cochlear implants, help deaf individuals regain partial or total hearing. Although there are not currently any devices similar to hearing aids that help the blind see their environment, there are a multitude of assistive and adaptive technologies to assist people in sensing their environment in other ways. A traditional walking cane for the blind is used to help people while they are walking by letting them feel the environment around them and sense any obstacles or changes in the terrain. Advanced technology currently in development is intended to allow people with impaired vision to sense the environment by converting spatial information to data that can be accessed by their other senses.

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