Adaptive Vs 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.


The Assistive Technology Industry Association defines assistive technology as 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.

Adaptive technology is a subcategory of assistive technology that refers to items 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 are typically considered assistive technology.

Examples of each type

These items were not specifically designed for individuals with vision loss but can be purchased with the use modification 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, classifying them as assistive technology.

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

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

Other adaptive technology types include:

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

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