Assistive Technology: What is in a name?

Oct. 19, 2020

Written by the WHO assistive technology team (and Secretariat for the Global Cooperation on Assistive Technology).

One of our goals at the World Health Organization’s Assistive Technology Team is to promote access to safe and effective assistive technology for everyone who needs it. In this blog post, we focus on the value of building consensus and clarity on the terminology we use, particularly the use of the terms assistive technology and assistive products.

The use of common terms and definitions provide a basis for shared understanding and assists both communication and transparency.  Searching for a definition of assistive technology yields many results across organizations, countries and publications, and highlights the diverse use of the term. Given that terms are not yet mainstream, misinterpretation or misunderstanding may occur.

Terms including assistive devices, assistive products, medical devices, assistive tech and assistive technologies are often used inconsistently and interchangeably. Upon hearing the term assistive technology, you may find yourself asking whether it refers to a service, product, system, process or field of engineering. In fact, the terms assistive technology and assistive technologies are frequently used to refer only to products.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines assistive technology as ‘the application of organized knowledge and skills related to assistive products, including systems  and services.’ Assistive products are ‘any external product (including devices, equipment, instruments or software)…the primary purpose of which is to maintain or improve an individual’s functioning and independence, and thereby promote their well-being’.1 Put simply, assistive products are the products and assistive technology is the whole ecosystem that is needed for their safe and effective provision and use.

At WHO, we avoid using the term assistive technologies in isolation as it may be interpreted as several assistive products. When referring to assistive products and related systems/services, the WHO team would use assistive technology. We would only ever use the term in the plural when referring to two or more different types of technology, such as digital and assistive technologies

WHO has historically been the facilitator of definitions in relation to health, including the definition of health itself, which has seen numerous iterations since its establishment in 1948. Consistent use of terms relating to assistive technology can promote alignment across diverse stakeholders, facilitate communication, enhance the comparability of data collected and engender confidence in the consistency of results. It also serves as an important reminder to us all – to focus not only on the products but also on the systems and services that are so key to ensuring a person is able to make optimum use of their assistive product/s.   

We invite you all to join us in the use of this terminology, as we together work towards mainstreaming so that soon, when these terms are spoken or written, everyone around the world instantly understands what they mean.

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  1. WHO (2016): Priority Assistive Products List (2016, 2020).