Challenges for Assistive Technology By Gorka Eizmendi & Jose Miquel Azkoitia
In the XXIst century Assistive Technology (AT) should be defined as a scientific and technological approach to developing products and services oriented to support elderly people and people with disabilities in their daily activities, thereby maximizing their personal autonomy, independence, health and quality of life. Assistive technology is, therefore, an instrument for the improvement of the well being, full social participation, and quality of life of people with disabilities, their families and professionals involved in their care. The portfolio of services and products within AT field includes a great diversity of solutions, from prosthetics to accessibility in the work place.
Which is the Role of Assistive Technology in the XXIst Century? One of the main challenges advanced societies are facing during the incoming years is the increase in the aging population that has a number of implications related to disability and care issues. There is no doubt that aging represents one of the hot topics in European policies; actually Europe is the most aged population in the world along with Japan. The natural association between aging and disability is evident, and the number of people with disabilities is thus increasing as consequence of the increased aging population. Overall, the advanced societies will have to deal with a situation with high rates of a population over 60 years (25% in 2010), and, in consequence, a big number of people with disabilities. According to statistics, it is estimated that the percentage of people with some kind of disability in Europe is 11%, and these numbers will presumably increase to 18% in 2020, mainly because of the aging population. At the same time, while the population is aging, the number of potential carers (formal or informal) will decrease drastically.
Acknowledging this scenario means new tools are required for assuring the sustainability of health-care system, and access to AT will be one of those fundamental tools. Actually, AT plays a fundamental role in equalizing opportunities and in improving the quality of life of people with disabilities, since it provides solutions oriented to the rehabilitation or compensation of functional abilities and helping in the elimination of barriers in all kinds of environments. The satisfactory use of these kinds of solutions enables a better integration of people with disabilities into current society. Still an Emerging Field During the last years, AT field has been involved in a great development, mainly because of the technological revolution. Nowadays, there are better solutions than 20, 10 or 5 years ago, and we foresee solutions that were unimaginable some years ago, such as the neuroprosthetics for urinary control in people with spinal cord injury or the cochlear implant for people with hearing impairments. This development is evident in "high tech" products (e-health, computer based systems…) and also in traditional products as the wheelchair. However, despite the technological development and the opportunity it opens, the situation of AT field is not as desired and there is still a long way to go. As demonstrated by the study carried out by the EU Commission "Access to Assistive Technology in the European Union", it is still an unstructured market with lack of transparency that exists in poor communication channels. As consequence, the end user of AT products is dealing with lack of information when deciding about the most suitable product to purchase. Additionally, AT assessment processes still do not integrate the required interdisciplinary vision and are carried out by single persons who, in most of the cases, do not have the suitable education. This scenario leads to situations where the provided solution is not the most suitable one from the integral point of view, generating unsatisfactory and even delicate situations. However, despite the technological development, AT’s have not developed much during the last 30 years. These products are still mainly oriented to mobility, and the actual status does not consider the epidemiologic trend, missing high prevalence disabilities such as those related to neurodegenerative disorders (i.e. Alzheimer, Parkinson’s.) Moreover, AT is not considered at all during prevention and rehabilitation stages, which are as important as compensation. Future Perspectives: The Opportunities We are, therefore, in a situation of necessity, but also in front of an opportunity. An opportunity for creating a new economic scenario comparable to those related to main sectors. An economic scenario which can be postulated as the engine of the new society; taking advantage of the aging, the so-called baby-boomers. The early baby-boomers are already over 60 and will represent the most important social movement in advanced societies during next 20 years, gathering for example the 50% of the American purchase capacity. But this opportunity presents challenges; challenges that we will have to face to take advantage of the situation and to achieve the objectives, in terms of market volume and in terms of quality of life. These challenges include: New Technologies: technological development is moving forward and AT manufacturers need to be aware of all new opportunities this development is raising. Besides mechanics and electronics, also ambient intelligence, smart and advance materials, nanoelectronics, biomechatronics and even bionics can offer important options for suitable solutions for people with disabilities and elderly people. Socio-Economic Issues: making Assistive technology products affordable to end users is definitely one of the big challenges for the incoming years. Universal design and its engagement with Assistive Technology: Integrating Design for All philosophy in the development of regular products and even AT products will speed up the integration process, reducing the gap between context requirements and functional abilities of people with disability. Evidence based Practice: business opportunities for Assistive technology will only be realized with a sound knowledge and understanding of the use of Assistive Technology solutions in real practice. Ageing and disability: Europe, as all other developed regions in the World, is facing a new social challenge; population ageing. This issue will introduce new type of needs and demands in terms of care, support and prevention that AT will have to face. The next 9th European Conference for the Advancement of Assistive Technology, which will be held 3-5 October in San Sebastián (Spain) will provide an opportunity to take a good look at these main challenges that the Assistive Technology community and society in general, will have to face in the next few years. Gorka Eizmendi is the Chairman of the AAATE07 Conference and the Project Manager, Health Division – Fatronik and Jose Miguel Azkoitia is the Co-Chairman AAATE07 Conference, Scientific Manager Health Division – Fundación Fatronik.