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The Role of Psychology in Assistive Technology

Applied psychological science continues to be a growth area for the discipline, as increasing numbers of psychological scientists conduct research to address pressing social, education, health, workplace, and other issues.

By Stephanie R. Johnson

Applied psychological science continues to be a growth area for the discipline, as increasing numbers of psychological scientists conduct research to address pressing social, education, health, workplace, and other issues.

Among the areas garnering increased attention in applied psychological science is Assistive Technology (AT). AT refers to any device or equipment that is used to maintain or increase the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities. AT can include mobility devices such as walkers and wheelchairs; text-to-speech systems for communication; reminder and alarm systems for eating, taking medication, and other daily activities; and hardware, software, and peripherals that assist people in using computers. The field of AT research and development draws upon a wide range of disciplines, including engineering, computer science, occupational therapy, gerontology, and psychology.

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These various disciplines are represented in the memberships and activities of the field's professional organizations, including the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA) and the Association for the Advancement of Assistive Technology in Europe (AAATE), as well as the APA. Within APA, a number of divisions have interests in AT, including 7 (Developmental Psychology), 16 (School Psychology), 20 (Adult Development and Aging), 21 (Applied Experimental and Engineering Psychology), 22 (Rehabilitation Psychology), 33 (Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities), and 38 (Health Psychology).

Development of successful AT products requires a careful analysis of the goals, functional capacities, and physical and social environments of the intended users. Marcia Scherer, of the University of Rochester Medical School, notes that psychologists play a leading role in carrying out this work, by conducting studies of users' judgments of whether and how particular technologies benefit them; how technologies fit within the users' full range of activities and contribute to their sense of control; the perceptions and attitudes of users and others toward particular technologies; and the ways in which technologies actually increase users' abilities to perform particular activities independently in daily life. Careful research on these questions as part of the technology development process can help ensure that the products are actually acquired and used. As Scherer points out, "We know that technology-person mismatches can have a series of repercussions including wasted resources, and people not performing at their functional best. On the service delivery level, device abandonment represents ineffective use of an assistive technology, all of which can be addressed through psychological science."

Assistive technology for cognition (ATC), aimed at meeting the needs of persons with cognitive disabilities, is an increasingly prominent area of AT research. Kirsch and colleagues (2004) have discussed methods for designing wireless, interactive computer technologies that are compatible with the cognitive capacities of individual users, such as the use of a microcomputer as a support device for patients with cognitive deficits or a computer assisted interactive vocational task used for cognitive rehabilitation. Other researchers, including Cole (1999) and Bergman (2003) and their colleagues, have developed such ATC products as adapted word processors, personal information managers, and reminder systems within cell-phones.

AT research and development is a field growing in both size and sophistication. It is sponsored by a variety of academic, government, and business institutions throughout the world. By playing a leading role in this effort, psychological scientists can help maximize AT's enhancements of the quality of life, functional capacities, and social inclusion of persons with disabilities.

Suggested reading:

Bergman, M.M. (2002). The benefits of a cognitive orthotic in brain injury rehabilitation. Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation. 17(5), 432-445.

Cole, E. (1999). Cognitive prosthetics: An overview to a method of treatment. Neurorehabilitation, 12, 39-51.

Cook, A.M. & Polgar, J.M. (2007). Cook and Hussey's Assistive Technologies: Principles and Practice (3rd ed). Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Health Sciences.

Kirsch, N.L., Shenton, M., Spirl, E., Rowan, J., Simpson, R., Schreckenghost, D., & LoPresti, E.F. (2004). Web-based assistive technology interventions for cognitive impairments after traumatic brain injury: A selective review and two case studies. Rehabilitation Psychology, 49(3), 200-212.

Parette, H.P., Peterson-Karlan, G.R., Smith, S.J., Gray, T., & Silver-Pacuilla, H. (2006). The state of assistive technology: Themes from an outcomes summit. Assistive Technology Outcomes and Benefits, 3, 15-33.

Scherer, M.J. (2005). Living in the state of stuck: How assistive technology impacts the lives of people with disabilities (4th ed). Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.


American Psychological Association: Division 22: Rehabilitation Psychology

Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access (Georgia Tech)

National Public Website on Assistive Technology