Fighting Assistive Technology Pushback

Assistive technology may be a broad, wide-reaching set of supports for disabled people, but often there is push back against its use.  This comes from a number of areas: misconceptions about what assistive technology is, how it will be used, and whether it's "fair" to offer these technologies to disabled people and not to others who might benefit from them, but don't need them for daily use.

Causes of AT Push Back

Lack of
Knowledge

There are many, many different types of assistive technology out there.  Many who push back against assistive technologies do so not out of any ill-will or desire to not make accommodations, but because they feel they do not know enough about assistive technologies to make decisions.

Lack of
Willpower

"We can't afford it."  "I don't have time to learn it."  "I don't want to learn something new."  All excuses that commonly are used to push against the use of assistive technologies.  These causes generally seek to assign the blame to causes that generally are able to be overcome, but the effort in overcoming them is too much for the person pushing back.

Lack of Understanding

While a lack of knowledge about specific technologies and the ability to use them, just as often the problem can come from a lack of understanding.  In this case, this is not understanding the purpose of assistive technologies - be it through misconceptions about the use of assistive technologies, a lack of understanding of the ways assistive technologies help and who they are for, and a lack of understanding of how to implement them effectively.

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Ways to Fight AT Pushback

​Like many issues, pushback on assistive technology is systemic, as much as individual.  However, this doesn't mean that a single person can't influence the world around them and make changes that benefit others, and this is especially true when it comes to assistive technologies.  To help guide these changes, the following three categories have been considered: Learning steps which focus on gathering knowledge, Challenge steps which focus on gaining understanding, and Doing steps which focus on countering the lack of willpower around implementation of assistive technologies.  Each of these build off of one another, and while they are not the only path to fighting pushback against assistive technologies, they provide a good starting point for most people.​

Learn

  • Learn the Myths: Learning about myths surrounding assistive technology not only helps you understand what arguments may be made against adding assistive technologies, but also help you understand your own personal biases as well.  While there is little scholarly study on these myths in particular, bias is recognized in many scholarly articles, as well as in more publicly-oriented pieces.  A good starting point is this list of the "Three Biggest Misconceptions about Assistive Technology" by WETA's Reading Rockets program, an educational program of the Washington, D.C.-based public television station, or these "Five Myths about Assistive Technology" from the Perkins School for the Blind, based out of Massachusetts.  

  • Learn the Laws:  To truly understand the ways you can advocate for assistive technology, the best way to start is to learn the laws.  As a start, the full texts of the Assistive Technology Act, Americans with Disabilities Act, IDEIA, and Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), can be found directly from the federal government.  However, reading entire federal laws takes time, and there are others who have gone that path before.  The most important things to know are that in any public setting, the right to assistive technology is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, provided it is not unreasonable - for example, while the use of a laptop computer or tablet in meetings is generally a reasonable accommodation, an organization having to purchase an expensive gaming computer generally will not be a reasonable accommodation if a less powerful computer will do.  In most cases, within school settings, students have a right to have assistive technologies provided by the school if they are necessary for the child's learning.  For adults, every state has an assistive technology center funded by the Federal government that lends and provides assistive technologies at no cost to users.  For more specific examples of how these various laws work, this resource by the Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center out of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill offers a good primer of the laws involved, and the federal Administration for Community Living provides a list of all organizations providing assistive technology services funded by the federal government, as well as organizations that have received grants from the federal government under the Assistive Technology act.  These organizations, as well as other trusted local disability advocacy organizations, are a great place to start learning about the laws involved.

  • Learn Your Options:  Assistive technologies are vast and varied.  A great way to start is to find more general resources on assistive technologies that you can use for inspiration, as well as search for technologies specific to what you are looking to implement.  I recommend, if you have access, starting with the article "Assistive Technologies: A Lifeline for Learning" by Greg Conderman.  It provides an excellent introduction to the vast array of assistive technologies out there.  Georgia Tech's Tools for Life program, which operates as Georgia's Assistive Technology Act provider, offers an excellent list of different kinds of technologies, including low, mid, and high-tech assistive technologies, with excellent explanations.  For more specific disabilities or needs, plenty of lists exist with the right Google search, usually as simple as typing in the name of the disability or need and assistive technology, for example, "autism assistive technology."  While the quality of sites may vary, a good example of things to look for can be found in this list compiled by Autism Adventures - it explains the different levels of the technologies in a clear and concise manner, and also provides a wide variety of options for inspiration, explaining those that need it.

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Challenge

  • Challenge your Biases:  We all have biases.  Some of them are good to have - not wanting to place ourselves in dangerous situations, or do things that might cause us harm - but in this case, bias is more often negative than positive.  Plenty has been written on bias - from the work of researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, to the Southern Poverty Law Center's Learning for Justice project and their hidden bias test, to the Department of Justice.  While plenty of resources exist on bias, it is important to note that assistive technology is its own category of work.  As such, a short activity can help you understand your own biases:

    • Choose an assistive technology you know well, or are interested in.​

    • Write down a list of all the things you believe about it right now

    • Do your research: find articles about that technology from trusted sources, such as the various assistive technology centers, and the media they publish.

    • What was correct about your pre-existing thoughts?  What was incorrect?

  • Challenge the Narratives:  This is almost a second step of challenging your biases.  There are narratives to every piece of technology.  Just like you need to challenge your own bias, challenge the bias of whatever system you work in.  Why do they believe it's too expensive to implement a certain technology?  Why does your coworker believe that someone using a laptop is always playing games on it?  Find out what information is coming out of the organization you work at, or what information you are being fed outside of your own research, and figure out what the reasons behind these narratives are - and find out if they are excuses and not reasons.

 

Do

  • Listen to People with Disabilities:  This is a simple request, yet one that is often ignored by those implementing supports.  Disabled people often feel like they're being ignored when concerns are raised.  Numerous pieces of research confirms this - "You Can't Be Cold and Scientific" by McDonald et. al. (2015) and "From 'on' to 'with' to 'by:' people with a learning disability creating a space for the third wave of Inclusive Research" by Milner and Frawley (2019) make this case well, and explain why this is important.  Additionally, there's plenty of evidence of the needs of disabled people being directly ignored despite overwhelming evidence - Raymaker et. al.'s landmark piece on autistic burnout in 2020 is an excellent example of something that was long reported by autistic people only coming to light when proper participatory practice was implemented.  The same goes with implementing assistive technologies.  Are you a museum professional designing an exhibit?  Ask your local disability community what they think of a tactile display or if the captions work.  The Children's Museum of Indianapolis does a particularly good job of this.  Are you a teacher wanting to find a support for a student?  Ask them what they feel would help the best, and try that.  Don't be above listening to a student for support.  Are you a manager trying to help an employee?  Chances are they know what works for them, and while they're the ones who will ask for the support, listening to what they request - and actually providing it - is the key.  If you are in a position of power, you are just as much of the problem as any other factor, and honest, thoughtful communication with disabled people is the first step in becoming part of the solution.

  • Become an Advocate:  Advocacy is effective.  It's how change was made, and how laws like the ADA, Assistive Technology Act, and IDEA's predecessors came to be (Fenton et al., 2017; Rossetti et al., 2021; Sears et al., 2021; Turnbull et al., 2011).  If you're reading this, you have the chance to be an advocate for assistive technology in your life.  When you see someone pushing back, challenge them on why they think the technology isn't necessary.  When you see a place where an assistive technology of any sort can be added, push to have it done.  Fight for grant funding, organizational funding, and all of the resources to make assistive technologies a reality in your world, and bring others into the fight with you, whether you're a parent, educator, or any other professional implementing assistive technologies.  Contact local disability advocacy groups, and find out what resources they might have for advocating in your own community - the best place to start is at home for all change.

  • Create Self-Advocates:  Self advocacy is perhaps the most important skill any disabled person can have (Dryden et al., 2017; Frawley & Bigby, 2015; Gregg et al., 2016; McCarthy, 2007; Morgan et al., 2017; Perryman et al., 2020).  If you are in the position where you are working with disabled people, help them advocate for themselves.  Provide a safe space where they can learn to share what they need, be it technology or any other support.  Teach assistive technologies as methods of promoting self advocacy skills, something that research has supported as being a useful way to develop these skills (Balint-Langel et al., 2020; Jozwik & Cuenca-Carlino, 2020; Zubal-Ruggieri, 2007).  Make the effort to share resources when those around you might not know about them - often times disabled people are not given information about what supports exist, especially those who come from lower socio-economic statuses, and simply sharing the existence of an organization or program might provide the support to change someone's life.

  • Implement Assistive Technologies:  Sometimes, the best method is to simply do it.  In most cases, push back comes informally.  For example, I had push back for using my laptop in an undergrad course.  The professor attempted to tell me that I couldn't use the laptop, despite my disability service note, and it took sending an email that outlined that the note was there for a reason and showing up the next day to class to use it to make it known that I had legitimate reasons to do what I was doing.  All of the misconceptions about assistive technologies are often solved by experience and making clear what is going on.  The best way to convince a skeptic is to show them the truth, and in this case, this means, where possible, implementing assistive technologies even when others might not be onboard with it.

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Resources