The Art of Adapting

Assistive Technology – or A.T. –  includes assistive devices, adaptive equipment or materials, and rehabilitative devices for people with disabilities as well as strategy for selecting, creating, and implementing items and a plan for using those items.  One of the fundamentals in the practice of Occupational Therapy is looking for ways to support function for individuals with special needs; when materials and the strategic use of those materials are part of that equation, O.T. and A.T. are working together hand-in-hand to promote independence.

The term Adaptive Technology is often used interchangeably with Assistive Technology; however, these terms actually refer to two different things.  The Technology Related Assistance to Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988 (The Tech Act) describes an assistive technology device as “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.” [1] Adaptive Technology, on the other hand, refers to items that are designed just for someone with a disability; it is technically defined as “any object or system that is specifically designed for the purpose of increasing or maintaining the capabilities of people with disabilities.” [2]  So while Assistive Technology is  the umbrella term, Adaptive Technology is the more specific term under that umbrella, often referring to items that are electronic in nature.  

Another subset of Assistive Technology is Adaptive Equipment, which is much like Adaptive Technology except that it typically does not involve electronics as part of the materials.  Adaptive Equipment can be purchased as a ready-made, or “pre-fab” item, from a company, or it can be created for use by a person with a need for such support.  Like Assistive Technology, Adaptive Equipment can be very basic (inexpensive, easy to acquire or create, and easy to use with little to no special training) or complex (more expensive and more difficult to acquire and to use) – or anywhere in between.  

Occupational Therapists often incorporate the use of both Adaptive Technology and Adaptive Equipment as part of their intervention for patients of all ages.  One thing I have learned in practice is that the price or complexity of an item does not necessarily result in a better success rate; in fact, sometimes the low-tech solutions are the ones that work the best for a number of reasons.  

Here are some ideas for low-tech Adaptive Equipment that can address deficit areas for individuals with disabilities:



Turn a shoebox (with the lid on top) upside down to use the lip of the lid as a card holder for a person with limited hand strength and/or who has limited function in one upper extremity.



Use a Sharpee to draw lines on a sectioned plate (this one’s from Target) to more clearly differentiate the sections for a person with a visual impairment.  Wrap a spoon with non-skid shelf liner for better grip.  There’s shelf liner on the back of this plate, too, for more stability when using it with someone with limited use in one arm or hand.



Put a bar of soap into one leg of a nylon stocking and tie the stocking to the shower faucet for a person with limited dexterity and to increase safety in the shower.



Use tape or a hot glue gun to attach a straw to a clothespin and then clip the clothespin onto the lip of a glass to stabilize the straw for a person with limited arm or hand use.  



Use a clothes hanger with clips to serve as a holder for a magazine or book holder for someone with decreased use of the upper limbs.

Each of these adaptations meets a need for someone with a disability, thus making each piece of Adaptive Equipment shown here also qualify as Assistive Technology.



[1] Cook, Albert M., and Polgar, Janice Miller. (2012). “Chapter 2: Framework for Assistive Technologies,” Essentials of Assistive Technologies. St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Mosby Publishers.

[2] DeCoste, Denise C. (1997). “Chapter 10: Introduction to Augmentative and Alternative Communication Systems,” Handbook Of Augmentative And Alternative Communication. San Diego, CA: Singular Publishing Group.


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