“Technology can and will play a major role in the development of our clients”

An interview about the technological possibilities for people with intellectual disabilities

Technology is becoming increasingly important. Hardly a day goes by that people do not use technology. Recently, technology is improving and innovating at a rapid pace and is already being used in many different industries. Technology is also becoming an important tool in healthcare, in its broadest sense. Within the general and mental health care, things such as robots or data analysis and other new innovations are more popular than ever. But healthcare has many different branches, and for one of these technological developments may offer many opportunities: the support of people with an intellectual disability. 

My father, Rudy Heiligers, has been working for the last 39 years in an organization supporting people with intellectual disabilities and visual impairment, which is part of expertise center Royal Dutch Visio. He works as a direct support person, but for the last 8 years he has also explored technological possibilities for this target group. My mother, Aly Waninge, is a researcher in the field of participation and health of people with intellectual disabilities. For this article, I will interview both of my parents, to talk about the technological possibilities for people with intellectual disabilities. 

How it started

Eight years ago, my father came up with the idea to take his new iPad with him to work, to see if his clients could do something with it. At that time, in 2012, there was no Wi-Fi at his work yet: “I had to request Wi-Fi from my manager, which made us the first group of the Royal Dutch Visio to use the internet for clients”. Rudy soon discovered many opportunities: where supervisors used to hold the telephone to the client’s ear, the clients could now video call with their family themselves, with just a touch of a button. From that moment on Rudy started experimenting with the possibilities for his target group. 

The current situation 

Nowadays almost every organization that supports people with intellectual disabilities is developing apps and digital experiences for this target group (Kennisplein Gehandicaptensector, 2020). Rudy: “a lot has become possible for our clients in a short period of time and the biggest development is that we see that technology contributes to greater independence for clients”. Technology supports participation for example by supporting social contacts, by offering games and music, and by supporting communication, for example by Siri. My father says that one of his clients is now able to do his own grocery shopping by taking his iPad with him. This client is not able to make a grocery list by writing it down, nor can he read a written list. But by selecting photos on the iPad, the caregiver provides him a list on his iPad.  Technology can also help against loneliness: several people with intellectual disabilities already have a cuddly toy robot. These robots stimulate interaction and can provide more peace of mind for the client. In this year with COVID-19, where visiting family was not allowed, video calling with the iPad eased this pain a little.

Because these technological developments are fairly new, there are sometimes problems involved. Rudy: “More and more clients are getting their own iPad, but many employees do not go along with that process. So sometimes there is too little knowledge about the possibilities”.

My mother, Aly Waninge, researches participation and health of people with intellectual disabilities. New technologies are also very useful for these studies: “technology creates new research methods. For example, it is sometimes difficult to measure how a client feels, but with a special app the client can simply keep track of this himself’.

Possibilities and threads

Technology can contribute enormously to the independence of people with intellectual disabilities in the future. Rudy: “Some things a caregiver has to do now, such as opening curtains and turning on lights, can all be taken over by a voice assistant, who can then be controlled by the client”. Aly: “a number of students from Hanze University of Applied Sciences are busy making bracelets that can be controlled by caregivers. They can remotely point someone in a wheelchair in the right direction, so that the client is supported during wayfinding, and can go somewhere alone”. Promising possibilities, but are there also things that need extra attention? Are there any threats? My father tells me that because these technologies are fairly new, there are no fixed protocols yet. All caregivers do it their own way and sometimes not all opportunities are used, because possibilities are unknown. Thereby, technology cannot solve everything. Rudy: “new technology offers opportunities for people with an intellectual disability, but it also remains real human work.”




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