The term assistive technology means little to a mainstream audience, but it has become a very identifiable term within the disability sector.

Over the past decade, it has gradually become the umbrella term that represents assistive, adaptive and rehabilitative devices for people with disabilities. The aim of assistive technology is to extend people’s independence as much as possible by enabling them to perform tasks which would otherwise have been difficult.

By definition, the term is extremely broad and can incorporate equipment as varied as mobility devices, hearing augmentation, software and hardware for computer interfacing, or even design and modification of the built environment, among many others.

Beyond the effective design of traditionally recognizable building elements, however, what is its relevance to building designers, managers, owners, occupiers and the like, and what opportunities exist?

Previously, much of the technology was customized to a particular group of users, a characteristic that appears to be changing quickly. Mobile devices and tablets are now being produced with alternative access options included at the point of sale. Alternatively, cheap and readily available apps and modifications can be applied to make mainstream mobile devices accessible to a much broader user group. This is helping to increase access to other mainstream assistive technologies.

Home and building automation is not a new concept but it has very significant benefits for people with mobility, strength and movement difficulties. Switching on lights, televisions and a host of other devices via a more usable interface assists people of varying needs to interact with their environments with greater freedom, ease and independence.

Significant building automation systems in the past have also often required extensive hard wiring, making installation or retrofitting costly and often complicated. The proliferation, simplicity and availability of technologies such as Wi-Fi, Over IP (Internet Protocols) and radio wave have largely removed or at least significantly reduced this issue.

By extending these systems to include other devices such as varying types of receivers, actuators and motors, a great deal can be achieved. The applications range from operating doors, windows and blinds which were otherwise inaccessible to automatically lighting paths to a destination in darker parts of a building, the latter offering significant ESD and safety benefits.

The recognition of governments and policy-makers that an ageing society will require far higher levels of health care support into the future has encouraged many to embrace some of these concepts and technologies. Maintaining independence at home and within their existing social and physical environments may prevent or delay the need to move to a costly health care facility. In some instances, it may reduce the time carers require to support individuals in their existing environments. The idea of a Smart House has emerged as a result.

A smart home incorporates many of the ideas mentioned above but can extend to other areas which have implications to other building sectors such as aged care.

Unobtrusive systems can be incorporated to monitor people’s health and well-being. This may include movement detectors at key times to assist with recognizing whether people have sustained a fall or an event which has made them immobile and at risk, emergency calls or alarms in the event that a gas stove has been left on or a bed has not been evacuated by a certain time, or timers and alerts for important functions such as medications.

The concept of Telehealth also interacts with these systems in that people with various conditions are afforded better access to health care professionals and other supports from their within their home while also participating in other related activities. For example, users will be able to test and record their vitals (e.g. sugar levels, blood pressure, etc.) and have it transmitted to the monitoring facility or organization, or in some instances a friend or relative if appropriate.

This is a rapidly evolving area which should see great innovation and growth in the years to come. The introduction of the NBN has encouraged some important discourse related to Telehealth to emerge but the implications of course are far greater than Telehealth alone. With recent technological advances, significant benefits can be achieved now with the right foresight, expertise and support.

By: Andrew Angelides