Technologies and Treatments

  • Technological Advancements Related to Disability
  • Advancements in Adaptive Devices
  • “Curing” Disabilities: A Common Thought in the Past, a Terrible One Today

Exhibition Thematic Section: Technologies and Treatments

MS Royal 10 E IV, f.110 - Guide Dog

Technological Advancements Related to Disability

Cali Laakso, Student, Fitchburg State University

Advancements in technology have greatly impacted the lives of people with disabilities. These advancements have been made in relation to health, transportation, and day-to-day life. No matter what aspect of life it has had an impact on, people with disabilities now have much more technology to assist them.

In the last several decades, there have been many new advancements to assist people with all different kinds of disabilities. This occurred at Fitchburg State in the last 20 years. During this time, Fitchburg State made a lot of changes to the campus in order to accommodate those with disabilities. Some of these accommodations included installing elevators in almost all buildings, creating easy outdoor access to all buildings, and having many services offered for those with disabilities. The spring 2020 semester was the first semester that there were no classes that needed a change of location due to a disability because almost all buildings were completely accessible.

Beyond Fitchburg State, there have been many other advancements that have been done to assist those who are disabled within their communities. The installment of ramps, elevators, and railings, along with other building accommodations, in public places have made public places such as restaurants or movie theaters more accessible to those with a physical disability. Public transportation and handicapped parking spaces are advancements that have greatly affected those who are physically disabled. Those with disabilities who cannot drive at all have an option of transportation, and those who can drive have parking spots that bring them closer to their destination. Braille is an advancement that helps those who are visually impaired. Audio aids help those who are hearing impaired. These can be as common as hearing aids or closed captioning on television, or there can be closed caption devices that are used at movie theaters. These are all general advancements that are being installed across the United States to assist those with disabilities ("9 Top Advancements In Disability Inclusion In America").

More recently, there have been many inventions in the past few years for people with disabilities. One of these inventions was found by Jose Di Felice who is from Switzerland. He was paralyzed in both legs and one arm and moves around in a wheelchair. He found the company Scewo, who built a wheelchair that can be controlled by smartphone and has special tracks to climb stairs. An invention like this is beneficial for people with physical disabilities that have to move around in a wheelchair. These people are often limited to the public places they can go to because they must have ramps or elevators for their wheelchair. With a wheelchair that can go up or down stairs, these people will be able to access almost any building they want (Scott-Clarke and Lewis).

Another invention that has been created is the WeWalk stick, which is a walking stick that detects obstacles, uses vibrations as warnings, has a voice assistant, and connects to Google Maps. An invention like this would impact the life of someone who is visually impaired. It could make walking around in public and finding destinations much easier to do alone. Technology like this is what needs to be created for people with all different kinds of disabilities (Scott-Clarke and Lewis).

There are other inventions and advancements in technology that have occurred in the past few years. One of these is a helmet for the blind which uses cameras and sensors, a cloud server, and speech to help people who are visually impaired or blind to navigate streets, recognize objects, and negotiate traffic lights and crossing. Another creation is a new hearing aid. This hearing aid is similar to a cochlear implant, but researchers are calling it a cognitive hearing aid. It would monitor the brain’s activity in order to identify what sound the listener is focused on, and then magnifying that noise and softening the background noise. A hearing aid like this one would be a great improvement from the hearing aids currently available. These would be very useful for more severe hearing impairments. A different invention is being worked on for those who are speech impaired. This creation is a glove that is able to translate performed sign language and turn it into speech. This would be an incredible advancement because not everyone is able to communicate in sign language. This would make people with speech impairments able to have conversations with anyone, not only people who know sign language (Potier).

An area of technology that has seen a lot of changes and advancements in technology is assistive technology in education. Teaching a child with disabilities is not always easy. Fortunately, there have been many forms of assistive technology that have been created to help teach these young students. There is assistive technology to help students with all different types of disabilities, from cognitive to physical. Assistive technology can be as simple as a graphic organizer to as complex as different software and apps to help in the classroom. According to Brian Neese, “the number of U.S. students enrolled in special education programs has risen 30 percent over the last 10 years." There are many resources for educators to find out more about assistive technology, how to use it and incorporate it into the classroom, and its importance.

A common form of assistive technology is text-to-speech software. This technology can help students with visual impairments, learning disabilities, autism, attention deficit disorder, or an intellectual disability. It helps any child who has difficulty reading. This software scans and reads words to students. Graphic organizers are another common tool used. These organizers help to organize a student’s thoughts when writing. This is especially beneficial to students with dysgraphia or disorders of written expressions. These graphic organizers can be as simple as a handout, or there are programs that help students visualize their writing and helps them put information in the proper place. There are several forms of assistive technology that help students who are hearing impaired. These include assistive listening systems, FM systems, and sound-field systems. Assistive listening systems and FM systems are both used in assisting one student with hearing impairments. Sound-field systems are used in a classroom that all students need listening assistance. Sip-and-puff systems are used for those with mobility challenges. It works similar to a joystick, and students use their mouth to move it. This system can control a computer, mobile device, or other technological application. There are several kinds of proofreading software designed specifically for writing errors made by students with dyslexia. This kind of software will help to correct written errors made by these students and help them to improve their writing. There are also software programs that assist students who have trouble with math. These programs help students with performing math problems through a microphone, or by helping students visualize a problem, all based on their disability (Neese).

An issue arises with creations and advancements such as these: expenses. All of these inventions are very expensive to make, and therefore would be very expensive to purchase, making it very difficult for all those with disabilities to afford them. Unless a donor or these companies are willing to give these creations away for free or a much reduced cost, a cheaper version of these innovations are going to need to be created in order to truly help people who are disabled (Scott-Clarke and Lewis).

Medieval people with disabilities used many assistive technologies, many of which could be considered the original version of what we use now. There is evidence of the use of sign language among people with hearing and speech disabilities. There is also evidence of people who were blind using service dogs. An artifact in this exhibit is a manuscript from the thirteenth century with a blind beggar being led by a dog. Similarly, an associate professor of Education, Joann Nichols, has a therapy dog, Beauty, and their story is also in this exhibit. This shows how long service dogs have been around, even if they were not to the extent of service dogs today. The most interesting form of technology used at this time was prosthetics. Although these people may not have been making a fully realistic and functional prosthetic, they did what they could. One story is of a man who attached a knife to his arm ("Disabilities in the Middle Ages with Kisha Tracy"). The people of this time may not of had the technology that is available now, but they certainly had their methods of accommodating disabilities.

Everyone has different needs. Every individual with a disability has different needs, different experiences, and different struggles from others. Each of these individuals deserve to have the technology to assistive them in living their life to the fullest potential. These people deserve to have the technology that helps them learn, that helps them communicate, that helps them move around, and more. There is so much technology that has been created to help people with disabilities live their lives, and this is only the beginning of it. Years from now, there is going to be even more, even better technology for people with disabilities. It is so important that our society uses the resources it has to give these people the technology they deserve.

"9 Top Advancements In Disability Inclusion In America." SYNERGY HomeCare, 2 May 2019, https://www.synergyhomecare.com/blog/posts/2019/may/9-top-advancements-in-disability-inclusion-in-america/#.Xoye4i-ZNQI.

"Disabilities in the Middle Ages with Kisha Tracy." The Medieval Podcast, 27 Feb. 2019, https://www.medievalists.net/2019/02/disabilities-in-the-middle-ages-with-kisha-tracy/.

Neese, Brian. "15 Assistive Technology Tools & Resources For Students With Disabilities,"  Teach Thought, 3 Dec. 2019, https://www.teachthought.com/technology/15-assistive-technology-tools-resources-for-students-with-disabilities/.

Potier, Laura. "New tech to help disabled people," The Guardian, 8 Sept. 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/sep/08/the-five-technology-to-help-disabled-people-blindness-paralysis-research-ai.

Scott-Clarke, Ed and Nell Lewis. "The tech empowering disabled people in cities," CNN, 30 May 2019. https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/29/business/disability-technology-transport/index.html.

Advancements in Adaptive Devices

Joshua Frazier, Student, Fitchburg State University

Disabilities take form in many unique, varying ways, with each presenting its own barriers and challenges in daily life. It should then not come as a surprise that the world of assistive technology is just as diverse as the various forms of disability. Assistive devices, or independent living aids, are tools or technologies that are designed to help people with disabilities and the elderly to remain independent and live full lives in their communities. A multitude of devices are available, each tailored toward a specific challenge a person with a disability may face. The Family Caregiver Alliance states that, “More than 15 million Americans with disabilities use some form of AT” (“Assistive Technology”).

Disabilities have affected people for as long as humans have existed, and we have been developing ways of overcoming them for just as long. Many of the devices we use today are relatively modern inventions, but some of them have existed in some form for hundreds, if not thousands of years. One such device is prosthetic limbs. People have been replacing missing limbs since the start of ancient civilization, though few examples of these remain. Some ancient cultures, such as the Aztecs and Indians, have figures in their mythology who lost appendages in battle which were replaced with prosthesis. Archaeologists in Capua, Italy, discovered an artificial leg which dates back to 300 B.C.E. and is the oldest surviving replacement leg. Although the idea for replacing limbs is ancient, the techniques and materials used have changed drastically. The Capua leg was made out of bronze, and was attached to its wearer via a belt made of sheet metal. Today’s prostheses are made of much lighter materials, such as carbon fiber and plastic, and have also been developed to feel more natural and give the wearer more control over the limb. We also have variations of these limbs to suit different purposes and lifestyles, such as the blade shaped legs worn by athletes which allow the wearer to run. Microprocessors let the limb “learn” the gait of the user to better match their rhythm. Scientists are even developing neuroprosthetics, which will allow the user to fully control the movement of the limb’s joints, essentially fully replacing the lost appendage (“History of The Prosthetic Leg: Across The Ages").

One of the few aspects that has remained the same about prosthetics throughout history is their incredibly high pricing. During the Middle Ages (500-1500 C.E), only the wealthy could afford to buy actual protheses, and as such makeshift replacements, such as peg legs were used by the lower classes. Wealthy knights would buy prostheses made of iron, which was too heavy for walking, but allowed the knight to ride a horse. The prices aren’t any better today: “The price of a new prosthetic leg can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000. But even the most expensive prosthetic limbs are built to withstand only three to five years of wear and tear” (“The Cost of a New Limb Can Add up Over a Lifetime”), says the website for the Hospital for Special Surgery. Even after the enormous cost of the leg itself, the patient still needs to pay for other services, such as fittings and physical therapy.

Beyond the scope of prostheses, there are other perhaps better-known mobility aids. These include wheelchairs, crutches, canes, and walkers. Crutches, canes, and walkers all serve the same purpose, but in slightly different ways. These devices are normally used for those with disabilities that affect their legs or balance, and are used to add another support for their bodyweight. Crutches and canes are better suited to reducing the weight placed on the users legs by allowing their arms to take a role in supporting them. Walkers also do this to some extent, but are better for providing balance by giving the user something to lean into, yet move with them. However, a different device is needed for those who can’t walk, even with the support. In these cases, a wheelchair would be used. All of these tools have been used throughout most of human history. It is impossible to know who was the first person to pick up a stick and use it as a cane, and wheeled carts and such vehicles have been around since the invention of the wheel. However, the first known use of a wheelchair dedicated to providing mobility to those with disabilities was in 1595, and was made for the King of Spain, Phillp II.

Of course, these devices work well on flat surfaces, but what if a person using a wheelchair needs to get up a flight of stairs? Physical structures such as ramps, handrails, and elevators also serve as assistive devices, but until recently in our history, they weren’t commonplace. This problem was addressed in 1990, in the American’s with Disabilities Act, which required that public areas, government buildings, and commercial facilities be accessible to those with disabilities. The act also had a large impact on state and local building codes, which are often more stringent than the ADA requires, creating better accessibility for those who need it (Dougan).

Movement is only one of the areas that people with disabilities may face difficulty. Hearing loss and deafness is one of the most common disabilities in the modern world. Early attempts at hearing devices were crude to say the least. During the Middle Ages, people with hearing loss would use animal horns that had been hollowed out in an attempt to funnel sound waves into the ear. These were later improved upon with the creation of the ear trumpet, which functioned the same way. Ear trumpets were not very successful, but were the only option until the invention of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell. His work on the telephone provided the technology needed for the invention of the first electric hearing aid in 1898 by Miller Reese Hutchison. Modern hearing aids work by receiving sound waves into a microphone, which are then amplified, and replayed through a speaker into the user’s ear. Hearing aids don’t work for everyone however, and only help those with minor hearing loss or deafness. Even in cases where a hearing aid is beneficial, the device doesn’t restore the user’s hearing to normal.

Just as there is a large variety of disabilities, there is also a large selection of tools and devices to aid those with disabilities in their daily life. While nothing is capable of truly removing obstacles, these devices make navigating around them just that little bit easier.

“Assistive Technology.” Family Caregiver Alliance, 2005, www.caregiver.org/assistive-technology.

“The Cost of a New Limb Can Add up Over a Lifetime.” Hospital for Special Surgery, 25 Apr. 2013, www.hss.edu/newsroom_prosthetic-leg-cost-over-lifetime.asp.

Dougan, Jeffrey. “Requirements for Ramp Dimensions under the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board Regulations and the Americans with Disabilities Act Design Standards.” MOD Blog, 12 Jan. 2018, blog.mass.gov/mod/access/requirements-for-ramp-dimensions-under-the-massachusetts-architectural-access-board-regulations-and-the-americans-with-disabilities-act-design-standards/.

“History of The Prosthetic Leg: Across The Ages.” Amputee Coalition, 21 Oct. 2019, www.amputee-coalition.org/history-prosthetic-leg/.

“What Are Some Types of Assistive Devices and How Are They Used?” Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 24 Oct. 2018, www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/rehabtech/conditioninfo/device.

Canterbury, UK - Canterbury Cathedral and Hugh of Jervaulx

“Curing” Disabilities: A Common Thought in the Past, a Terrible One Today

Alexander Maggio, Student, Fitchburg State University

In the early 2000s, Iceland became the first country to introduce the prenatal screening test. These optional tests for pregnant mothers revealed if their child was to be born with Down Syndrome or not. Since then, Iceland has become the country where Down Syndrome births are almost completely eradicated. This is primarily because almost all women in the country that receive a positive result in the prenatal screening test terminate their pregnancy via abortion. Since then, other countries have followed in the same tred, including the United States (67% termination between 1995 and 2011), France (77% in 2015), and Denmark (95% in 2015) (Lajika and Quinones).  But the real question is why would a family end their pregnancy if their child is revealed to have Down Syndrome? In an interview with CBS, Helga Sol Olafsdottir says that aborting a baby with Down Syndrome means ending “a possible life that may have had a huge complication… preventing suffering for the child and for the family” (Lajika and Quinones). This procedure from Iceland exposes a big problem in today’s world: the idea of curing disabilities. This idea traces back a long ways, and, while there are ways that certain disabilities can be treated and “cured,” there’s a common misunderstanding about the idea of curing a disability. 

The Practices of the Past

In the past, the idea of “curing” a disability was widespread through several different countries. Earliest recorded examples of such ideas and practices trace back to the time of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. Both of these ancient empires shared common ideas on self-image, including that any “Physical difference, in the form of a different ethnicity or a disability, was seen as a mark of inferiority” (“Parallels In Time A History of Developmental Disabilities”). People with disabilities were sometimes perceived as inferiority in these times; the Greeks called them “idiots” and famous philosopher Aristotle wrote that "As to the exposure and rearing of children, let there be a law that no deformed child shall live." (“Parallels In Time A History of Developmental Disabilities"). In Ancient Rome, “children with disabilities were treated as objects of scorn” at times and were “thrown in the Tiber river by their parents.”or left to die in other ways (“Parallels In Time A History of Developmental Disabilities”). Sparta made it a legal requirement to abandon any infants born with disabilities. Today, this would sound truly evil and criminal, however this was standard practice in certain ancient time and places. 

As time went on and the Middle Ages came, there were less records of killing infants with disabilities and an increase in “curing.”  One showcase of such a curing can be seen in one of the many “miracle windows” at the Canterbury Cathedral in the United Kingdom.  The windows tell of the stories of the miracles of Saint Thomas, who was believed to “cure a variety of infirmities” that anyone had (Preston). One window in specific tells of Hugh of Jervaulx, who was diagnosed with a disability after surgeons and physicians are unable to attend to him. He then takes a drink of the Holy Water of Saint Thomas and ends up getting a severe bloody nose. Once the bloody nose stopped, however, Hugh was cured of his disability, all thanks to another miracle from Saint Thomas. All of this sounds suspicious in our day and age, however such stories about cures were widely believed in the Middle Ages.  

“Curing” Disabilities Today

As mentioned in the beginning of this paper, the abortion of babies who are to be born with Down Syndrome is becoming a common trend in this world. Along with this, as kids we learn that having a disability or acting "weird" in our world can be a problem. For example, in the short story “Movement” by Nancy Fulda, a fictional doctor says that “if you aren’t amazing all the time, if you slip up and let yourself look or act disabled…you’ll be one of them. The people with no future” (Hoffmann). This idea that if we aren’t acting "normal" everyday of our lives, or show any signs of disability, that we won’t have a future is downright horrendous to think; and yet, we’re taught this in today’s world.  As someone who has ADHD, I feel like I need to act "normal" in order to not seem out of place or find success in my life, when, in reality, anyone can succeed in life, whether they have a disability or not. Some examples include author Ada Hoffman, who has Asperger Syndrome, comedian Lee Ridley, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a child and has to use an iPad to speak, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was diagnosed with Polio. So, in reality, having a disability doesn’t mean you need to be normal, rather it should mean that you have a chance of accomplishing what other people can accomplish. 

Despite there being a lot of criticism for curing disabilities in our world, however, there are ways that some disabilities can be “cured.”  These can range from prosthetic limbs to modified household items for people with a certain disability. Examples of the latter can be found from the Lighthouse Center for Vision Loss, which has an entire store dedicated to helping those with impaired vision. Household items such as keychains, magnifiers, talking clocks, speaker phones with big number keys, and even game items can be found in their shop. Along with vision impairments, people with hearing impairments can purchase hearing aids, learn sign language, or read lips to help them in today’s world. All of these can be described as indirect “cures” to a disability someone may have, as while they may not be curing them of their disability, it’s still helping them in a world that may not be disability friendly. Even as time goes on and technology advances, we are still finding more ways to help those who have disabilities by using new technologies. 

All of these ideas bring us back to what Iceland has been doing, promoting the idea that prenatal screenings is the way to cure someone of a disability, to have them die before they are born. Along with this, stories revolving around Iceland “curing” or removing disabilities can have an effect on those that are diagnosed with said disabilities. As suggested by Aliana Leary, “Celebrating scientific advancements centered around the idea of a cure for or elimination of disability can be problematic, because it hinges on the idea that we should want to eliminate disability." This idea that we need to eliminate disability can cause a lot of problems for future generations. Having a disability doesn’t mean that you are forced to a life of suffering, rather it just means you are different in some ways compared to others. We shouldn’t feel obliged to hide our disabilities or advocate to have them removed, rather we “should be centered on improving the lives of disabled people” (Leary). Having services like Lighthouse Vision, as well as places where people with disabilities can get help should be more available in our lives. While it has been at times acceptable for people with disabilities to be left to die or for them to get “cured,” we shouldn’t be perpetuating these ideas. Curing disabilities is not the answer. Providing accommodations for those who have disabilities is. 

Hoffmann, Ada. “Autism, Representation, Success – Ada Hoffmann.” Jim C Hines, 14 Feb. 2014, www.jimchines.com/2014/02/autism-representation-success-hoffmann/.

Lajka, Arijeta, and Julian Quinones. “‘What Kind of Society Do You Want to Live in?": Inside the Country Where Down Syndrome Is Disappearing.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 14 Aug. 2017, www.cbsnews.com/news/down-syndrome-iceland/.

Leary, Alaina. “Why Finding Cures for Genetic Disabilities Shouldn't Be Our Main Goal.” Rooted in Rights, 16 Oct. 2017, rootedinrights.org/why-finding-cures-for-genetic-disabilities-shouldnt-be-our-main-goal/.

“Parallels In Time A History of Developmental Disabilities.” The Minnesota Governor's Council on Developmental Disabilities, Department of Administration Council on Developmental Disabilities, mn.gov/mnddc/parallels/one/1.html.

Preston, Cheryl. “Hugh of Jervaulx Detail.” The Getty Iris, 25 July 2018, blogs.getty.edu/iris/the-miracles-at-canterbury/.