Adaptive technology versus assistive technology: What’s the difference?

If you are a person with a disability, you have likely heard both terms before, but maybe never thought about what the difference is. 

Both technologies offer high-tech or low-tech solutions to assist in overcoming a barrier caused by a physical or cognitive limitation. Though the terms are often used interchangeably, assistive technology and adaptive technology have different definitions. 

Adaptive technology vs assistive technology 

The Assistive Technology Industry Association's definition of assistive technology is any item, system or product used to improve the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities. Assistive technology can be bought off-the-shelf, modified or custom-made. 

As a subcategory of assistive technology, adaptive technology refers to something specifically designed for people with disabilities. Items can sometimes be in both categories.

For example, many store-bought office supplies might fall into both categories. Bold line ruled paper, large type calendars and pastel-colored legal pads would usually be considered assistive technology

These items were not specifically designed for individuals with vision loss but can be purchased with the modification of the use in mind. Pastel notepads and yellow legal pads can reduce glare or help with focus and organization.

Even the keyboard shortcut keys you use all the time, instead of the mouse, qualify as assistive technology but not necessarily adaptive technology. Keyboard shortcuts were initially developed to improve data processing efficiency. They are standard in the Windows environment and can be used by anyone. This classifies keyboard shortcuts as assistive technology.

Voice assistants are a great example of adaptive technology transitioning into assistive technology. Dragon Naturally Speaking was the pioneer program for voice dictation in the early 1980s and was designed to aid individuals with physical limitations to access the computer. 

Now, voice dictation and narrator options are built into our phones, computer software and even television remotes. This ready availability is forcing a shift from these functions being adaptive technology to assistive technology. 

Other adaptive technology types include: 

  • Technologies for the visually impaired – Braille printers, screen readers, and computer magnification programs

  • Mobility aids – Walkers, wheelchairs and other items that can help people get around.

  • Augmentative and Assistive Communication Systems – AACs are used by people who have difficulty communicating with unassisted speech.

  • Technologies for the hearing impaired – Hearing aids, cochlear implants, and teletype phones

  • Home or building modifications – Architectural changes such as handrails in the restroom or voice assistance systems to access home functions

These are the main differences between adaptive technology vs assistive technology, and as more advancements are made in mainstream products, it is entirely likely that we may see less adaptive technology specific programs and aids as more of these features become readily available as built-in systems.

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