Picture of a person with a communication device with text stating "This is how I'm Able"
Lightwriter

Although the development of assistive technology (AT) started much earlier, the field of AT, in my opinion, did not really come into the public eye until the 80s, which is when I first learned about it in college.  The year 2020 marks the 32nd anniversary of the Assistive Technology Act, the 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the beginning of my 30th year of working with people with disabilities and AT. It is also the 27th anniversary of ND Assistive (formerly IPAT), where I have happily hung my hat for 20 of those years.  So, I thought it would be fun to review the AT developments, discoveries, and happenings over the last four decades with an assistive technology timeline at the end of this article and discuss where we’ve been and where we need to go.

Although we have a long way to go in the field of assistive technology, especially in the area of equitable access and acquisition of AT, we are in a much better place than 40 years ago.  The expanded number of AT choices, lower cost, and the increased mainstream availability of some AT devices, among other things, have made a huge difference for many people in getting the AT they need.  For example, a person with quadriplegia has so many more options for control of their world than back in the 80s. AND most of those options are much more readily available and affordable…”Alexa, turn on my lights, TV, fan…my world!”.

Amazon Echo DOt
Amazon Echo Dot

To put it further in perspective, when I first started my first job as a speech-language pathologist in 1991, there was no Internet, I had a computer with a 10 MB hard drive at work, and my home computer had no hard drive, notta, zip. In 2000 when I started with ND Assistive, we had dial-up internet (insert that oh so familiar dial-up sound) and Gateway computers with 20G hard drives (remember those South Dakota cow computers?!). We had voice-activated environmental controls for lights, TV, etc. in the late 90s, but they cost thousands of dollars and were extremely difficult to set up. In contrast for 2020, the $29 sale priced Amazon Echo Dot with a smart plug for the lights can be purchased with a click of a button in your living room and set up in minutes.

GEWA Page Turner
GEWA Page Turner

The explosion of mainstream technology these last 20 years and especially these last 10 have changed everything in the world of assistive technology.  I mean, can you believe that it has only been a little over 10 years since the first iPad came into our lives with one big swipe? Not that long ago, the gigantic $4000 GEWA page-turner, which turned the pages of an actual book with a push of a switch was some of the coolest technology available. Now, we can tell our smartphones and tablets to not only turn the page of a digital book, but we can visit the library online and instantly download another book for free!

Not only have assistive technology devices advanced, but more people are working in the field of AT who develop and sell products, assess AT needs, recycle used AT, provide AT training, etc. Some companies, whose main purpose has nothing to do with the field of disability, even have full-time staff and sometimes entire departments dedicated to AT and/or Accessibility, which is so amazing!

Funding avenues for assistive technology have also improved through both private and public means.  I will never forget in 2001 when for the first time ever, Medicare began coverage of speech-generating devices (SGDs) for people with communication disabilities. Before that, SGDs were thought of as “convenience items” with that very language written into Medicare policy.

Lastly, more and more vendors of mainstream technology are now building accessibility right into their products such as the built-in accessibility features of the Facebook Portal, the iPad, and the Android operating system.  Microsoft was one of the first companies to add built-in accessibility features to its mainstream product with the 1995 release of its Windows 95 operating system.

ND Assistive's First Assistive Technology Center
ND Assistive’s First Assistive Technology Center-2002

So many amazing changes and developments have happened these last four decades in the arena of assistive technology that one might think that our work as AT providers is easier, that we can slow down, back off, or that there is less work to be done.  On the contrary, AT providers, and AT programs have never been more needed than we are right now. The truth is that because of this explosion of AT and mainstream technology, it is more difficult than ever for the layperson to figure out what AT might work for them when searching through the vast “interweb” of confusion and receiving millions of “hits” in Google.  Not to mention the fact that there are so many choices with so many variables that it really takes someone who specializes in assistive technology to help navigate the situation, provide an appropriate equipment match, provide training, etc.

In addition, we especially need AT providers to continue fighting for AT funding and to build awareness of and access to AT.  So many people are going without because they either cannot afford AT, or they are not even aware AT exists. For example, a grandmother with memory loss ending up in a nursing home because their family did not realize there was a $150 locked medication dispenser that could help her stay in her own home, or a high school senior with dyslexia deciding not to go to college because he was unaware of AT for reading.

In closing, I am looking forward to the next 40 years of amazing advancements in assistive technology, as I know there will be.  I also hope someday that everyone knows about the benefits of assistive technology when they need it and that there is funding available, so they can actually acquire and benefit from it!

A picture of the iPod Touch and the IDMate Omni
iPod Touch and the IDMate Omni

Assistive Technology Timeline 1980-2020

Disclosure: This timeline below is not inclusive and was compiled with only the vast offering of the internet and my memory…and yes, I even used Wikipedia in some instances.  The dates of these events are approximate. The credit given to some of the inventors is a best guess because conflicting information was found during my searches. So rather than using the following timeline as 100% fact, please just think of it as a form of entertainment and a quick, not all-encompassing, guide to see how far we have come in the past 40 years of assistive technology.

1980-The Don Johnston company started developing its first assistive technology products for reading and writing such as Co:Writer and Write:OutLoud

1981Abledata, an assistive technology database, begins the planning stages

1982The Express 3, the first device with synthesized speech capabilities debuts

1983-The Office of Technology Assessment publishes a Case Study on Assistive Devices for Severe Speech Impairments

1984-The Touch Talker, the first portable augmentative communication device from Prentke-Romich debuts

1985-First version of Microsoft Windows is developed 

1980something-The Pocketalker Personal Listening device debuts

1987-Steve Mendelsohn, attorney, and advocate publishes “Financing Adaptive Technology”

1988

1989Jaws Screen reader for DOS debuts

1990

1991-The first DynaVox, an augmentative communication device, was released

1992-US Department of Health and Human Services publishes, “AssistiveTechnology for the Frail Elderly: An Introduction and Overview”, which coincidently makes a prediction for the year 2020.

1993-The Assistive Technology Act came to North Dakota and ND Assistive (formerly known as IPAT) began in state government under the Department of Human Services, Vocational Rehabilitation

1994-Bluetooth was invented

1995

1996-Scan and read Technology for personal computers debuts with software such as Kurzweil 3000 and 1000 and TextHelp-Read and Write

1997

1998-

1999-The American Paralysis Foundation and the Reeve Foundation joined forces and would later start the High Impact Innovative Assistive Technology Awards with funding from the Administration on Community Living

2000The Complete Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault becomes the first digital talking-book master produced in the National Library Services or Talking Books recording studio

2001Medicare coverage for speech generating devices

2002-ND Assistive opens the first-ever Assistive Technology Center in North Dakota

2003-the first CapTel phone debuts

2004

2005Tobii introduces the first Eyegaze controlled computer

2006

2007

2009

  • Proloqu2Go -the very first full-featured Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) App debuts
  • iPhone Accessibility Debuts for 36 seconds
  • ND Assistive becomes a non-profit.

2010-The iPad is hatched and changes life as we know it in the area of assistive technology-even without a camera

2011

2012-The ND Assistive Blog begins

2013ND Assistive opened the Home First Demonstration Center in Fargo-a simulated home filled with Assistive Technology

2014-Amazon Echo debuts with the Alexa Voice Assistant

2015Steve Gleason Act Passes and reverses Medicares decision to decrease funding for Speech Generating Devices

2016

2017-Microsoft debuts app for the platform of its competition, Apple, with Seeing AI, and it’s FREE!

2018-Google launches Voice Control for Android mobile devices

2019

2020

Group of people at the ND State Capital including Governor Doug Burgum

About Author

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Jeannie Krull is the Program Manager for ND Assistive (formerly IPAT). She is an ASHA certified speech/language pathologist and a RESNA certified Assistive Technology Professional, who has worked with people with disabilities of all ages since 1991.