When most people think of Assistive Technology (AT), they think of expensive technology that is created by institutions such as research universities, large companies, and government funded organizations. I call this type of assistive technology – Institutional AT. But for as long as there have been people with disabilities, many of them have been making their own assistive technology by whatever means available. Until recently, they have been doing it alone in the shadows, out of the public eye. These people are part of the growing movement of Do It Yourself Adaptive Technology (DIY-AT).
I think it is helpful to think of the universe of assistive technology in terms of Institutional AT which is top down and DIY-AT which is bottom up. Each of these methodologies are important for improving the lives of the people with disabilities. The more these two approaches learn from, and interact with each other, the greater the net result will be for the Adaptive Community. For example, Institutional AT can inspire DIY-AT with its impressive and innovative devices. And the people involved in DIY-AT can build a pool of people with talent and hands-on-skills that helps to sustain and advance Institutional AT.
Generally speaking, Institutional AT gets the majority of the funding and attention. Institutional AT is known for producing innovative high tech devices that become the subject of news stories and spur the imagination of “what could be”. Due to the funding, robust resources, and extensive research and design facilities available to entities involved in Institutional AT, it is able to attract designers and engineers to the field of assistive technology.
Unfortunately, a considerable percentage of what is developed through Institutional AT doesn’t trickle down to the typical person in the Adaptive Community. There is no question that Institutional AT drives innovation and leads to new products for people with disabilities. But economic and business constraints typically limit the amount of people who actually are able to benefit from much of this technology. For example, assistive technology such as the exoskeletons and stairclimbing wheelchairs, which are heralded as revolutionary innovations, are unaffordable for much of the world’s wheelchair users, particularly those in developing countries. Many of these people can barely afford a cheaply made and poorly designed hospital style wheelchair that cost a few hundred dollars or less, let alone high tech devices that cost tens of thousands or more.
The field of assistive technology through Institutional AT is essentially problem solving for people with disabilities in an organized, time intensive, and systemic manner. On the other hand, DIY-AT is problem solving on the fly, by people with an immediate personal need to fill. The “A” in DIY-AT stands for “Adaptive” rather than “Assistive” since the emphasis is on adapting relatively inexpensive products/parts/resources that are widely available to consumers. Much of DIY-AT is not glamorous. The DIY-ATer is driven by necessity. He or she adapts because there doesn’t currently exist a product that meets his/her particular need. The scope of DIY-AT is so vast that I am purposely not providing examples since DIY-AT encompasses so many different types of uses.
For people WITHOUT disabilities, there exists a huge amount of choice for products at a wide variety of price points. In many cases, the challenge faced by designers and engineers is not how to solve a real world problem, but how to differentiate their product from all the others that already solve this particular problem. Comparatively speaking, the availability of affordable and highly functional products for the Adaptive Community is sparse. DIY-ATers exist to fill this gap.
The movement of DIY-AT has the advantage over Institutional AT in that the adaptation is not intended to work for “everyone”. The result doesn’t need to be a commercially viable product. It might morph into such a product down the road, but that is not its original intention. Therefore, DIY-AT can be as simple/complicated and/or specialized as the maker wants it to be for his or her own use. DIY-AT devices are also not constrained by the need to limit product liability (since there is no product for sale) For example, it is common for products for the wheelchair users to have low performance characteristics in order to increase their margin of safety (reduce liability) for all wheelchair users regardless of the user's individual capability. On the other hand, products for people WITHOUT disabilities allow for a “buyer beware” attitude that results in high performance devices from racing motorcycles to flying wingsuits. The consumer is free to select the product that meets his or her performance, risk tolerance/safety requirements.
While Institutional AT exists on the top of the pyramid of assistive technology, DIY-AT forms the wide base involving much of the population of people with disabilities throughout the world in some manner. The amount of DIY-AT in use is inversely proportional to existence of commercially available and affordable assistive technology. The movement of DIY-AT is a reaction to the lack of obtainable assistive technology. It is not a replacement for it.
Despite the important role DIY-AT has in improving the quality of life for many people with disabilities, it is underappreciated. It is also mostly unsupported. There are no formalized systems for encouraging and facilitating DIY-AT. DIY-ATers are left pretty much on their own. Fortunately, the recent emergence of worldwide social media and widespread information sharing via the internet has accelerated the growth of the DIY-AT movement. Now DIY-ATers all over the world are able to learn and connect with others. Instead of innovating on their own, they are able to share designs, insights, and knowledge leading to an acceleration of the movement.
It is my contention that DIY-AT movement plays a vital role in improving the lives of people with disabilities. While the devices produced may not be as high tech or as glamourous as those of Institutional AT, they provide real world benefits to people with disabilities across the world. I think that it is important for society to acknowledge and view DIY-AT as an integral part of the assistive technology universe, and then work to create systemic means to support and advance the DIY-AT movement.