Definition of the term 'Assistive Technology'

Assistive Technology (AT) is any product or service designed to enable independence for disabled and older people. (User group consultation at the King's Fund, 2001, facilitated by FAST)

This definition was agreed at a King's Fund consultation meeting in March 2001* to replace the term disability equipment. This umbrella term is widely used in the UK because it more accurately reflects the broad range of equipment and services that assist older and disabled people of all ages to maximise their independence. It acknowledges the cross over between inclusively designed, mainstream products and the technology specifically made for disabled and older people.

The key advantage of this definition is that the characteristic outcome is ‘independence’ in contrast to other definitions that set functionality and safety as outcomes. As it was strongly influenced by disabled and older people, it is unsurprising that this definition is in line with the disability movement’s support for the personalisation of services and implies an evaluation of assistive technology services though the measurement, in part at least, of personally-set outcomes.

Alternative definitions

Given the context of service provision and evaluation within statutory services in the UK it is to be expected that researchers and practitioners often feel comfortable working with a more tightly described definition that imply more generically measurable outcomes.

  • One good definition that achieves this without circumscribing outcomes too closely is this one by Cowan and Turner-Smith published in 1999 that describes assistive technology as ‘any device or system that allows an individual to perform a task that they would otherwise be unable to do, or increases the ease and safety with which the task can be performed’.
  • The World Health organisation has defined assistive technology as: 'An umbrella term for any device or system that allows individuals to perform tasks they would otherwise be unable to do or increases the ease and safety with which tasks can be performed.'   (Glossary Of Terms For Community Health Care And Services For Older Persons”, 2004)
  • The United States is the only country in the world with statutory legislation relating to the acquisition of assistive technology and a definition of assistive technology with legal standing. The Assistive Technology Act of 1998, [105-394, S.2432] provides the following definition of an assistive technology device: The term `assistive technology device' means any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.'

    Learning from the United States was that to define the term too closely using illustrative lists of equipment runs the risk that any associated legislation, funding or regulatory measures failed to cover emerging technologies not included in the listing.

Scope of the definition of assistive technology

For the purposes of FAST's work, products and systems are further classified as assistive technology if their adoption and use is under some measure of control by the disabled and older end user and there is a level of meaningful interaction by the end user with the product or system. This therefore excludes telemedicine services such as videoconferencing between a GP and a hospital consultant, using equipment in the hospital and GP surgery, as these technologies are primarily used by, and operated under the control of, the healthcare provider.

Neither does the FASTs work feature research on implanted technologies over which the user has no control or interaction, such as hip replacements. However this classification would lead to the inclusion in the database of research into the use of semi-implanted devices, such as gastrostomy feeding tubes, which are used, cleaned and maintained by the individual at home, though implanted in hospital.

Alternative uses within the UK

Assistive Technology (AT) is still used to denote a particular sub-range of equipment by different sectors, for example, people working in the education sector tend to define AT as products and services which assist learning: access to computers, both hard and soft ware, communication aids and digital learning aids. Additionally, there has been mention of 'Assistive Technology' within government policy denoting only telecare and telehealth applications. As integration across services to disabled and older people increasingly takes place between health, social care, education, housing and employment services such variation in the use of the term will resolve itself.

*The King's Fund meeting in 2001 was facilitated by FAST and followed wide consultation. Organisations taking part in the meeting to agree the definition were:

Whizz Kidz, Stoke Mandeville Hospital, the Department of Health, Disabled Living Centres Council (now Assist UK), British Healthcare Trades Association, Sussex University, NHS Purchasing and Supplies Agency, the Centre for Disability Research and Innovation (now the Aspire Centre for Disability Sciences), RADAR, Southern Medical Ltd, Nuffield Orthopaedic Hospital, BES Rehab, the West Midlands Rehab Centre, CoRE at King's College London, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Association of British Healthcare Industry and the Medical Devices Agency.