Is an App an AT "Device"?

The legal definition of assistive technology (AT) focuses upon the concept of an AT device being an "item, piece of equipment, or product system." This might have us mistakenly think of AT as separate things, that is, hardware or concrete objects. In 1988, about 25 years ago when the definition was written, there was not an extensive system of easily acquired software applications nor were there small and powerful devices for running them. The Apple IIe "personal computer" had appeared in 1977, but it still required you to type in commands on a blank screen to start anything.

The first Apple Macintosh, or "Mac," computer with a graphical, or icon-based, desktop interface appeared in 1984 offering 2 built in applications, MacWrite and MacPaint. It had 128K of built-in memory (Today, even a child's talking toy has much more memory than this!)



Computer-based text-to-speech systems were created in the late 1950's using large mainframe computers. The first general, electronic text-to-speech synthesizer was built in 1968 with the first speaking calculator appearing in 1976. Early speech synthesizers for portable computers were boxes that plugged into the computer, rather than Beijing an application that is built into the computer. (And, according to the ad at left, costs about what a high def Kindle Fire would cost today.)



With a built-in speech synthesizer, some kind of keyboard or touch-key system for entry, and bulky rechargeable batteries,an early, portable voice output communication device was an "item" of technology the size of a briefcase. Combine this with a powered wheelchair, a wired system for controlling devices in the environment like lights, temperature, stereos, and telephones with answering machines and you have a "product system" with many different pieces of AT that might be used by a person with physical disabilities. And a very bulky product system at that - there would hardly have been room for the person in the wheelchair!

Today, software for many applications - communicating, writing by voice, controlling a wheelchair, making phone calls, and controlling the environment might be combined in one device - the laptop computer. Technology convergence was greatly shaped and changed the way we think of AT. Rather than separate devices each having a narrow set of functions, we now have single devices that provide sets of functions that are easily added or downloaded.