Cerebral palsy is a type of permanent movement disorder. In addition to motor disability, people with cerebral palsy (CP) can also experience visual or hearing impairments, intellectual disabilities, or other developmental challenges, and so many of those with CP often use assistive technology to help them navigate the world and reach their functional potential.
The term assistive technology describes any item or system that is used to maintain or improve the functioning of an individual with a disability.
When some people think of assistive technology, they might imagine high-tech, computerized devices that help people move or communicate, but assistive devices can also include low-tech equipment like a modified handle or utensil.
Both high-tech and low-tech devices can help people with cerebral palsy enhance their independence and participate more in the classroom, at work, at home, and in society.
Types of Assistive Technology
Any or all of the following types of assistive technologies may be useful for a person with cerebral palsy.
Mobility technology can help people with cerebral palsy move around the world. These include walking aids like special footwear, orthotics, walkers, and crutches, as well as wheelchairs and scooters. Mobility devices may also include items that help a person to sit comfortably and maintain good posture while participating in various activities. Mobility technology diversely reflects the needs of the individual; for example, if a person with cerebral palsy cannot control the hand switches of an electric wheelchair, they may benefit from one that uses the head, chin, or mouth to navigate. (1)
Communication technology can help an individual with cerebral palsy express their needs and thoughts and build relationships with others. These devices may be as simple as a picture book or board that communicates tasks and needs. Writing and typing aids may also be used to help an individual communicate. Communication technology can also include voice synthesizers, communication software, and other electronic devices that aid or produce speech or language. For individuals who struggle to touch and manipulate screens and technology, some technology uses eye movement to select and communicate words and ideas. (2)
Vision and hearing technology can help individuals who experience these sensory impairments. Hearing technology can include cochlear implants, hearing aids, and telephone technology that amplifies or translates voices into text. Vision technology can include glasses, magnifiers, or computer software that enhances images or enlarges text.
Environmental technology includes any devices that help an individual control their environment. This could include devices that make it easier to turn on lights, television, or other appliances. Touch-screen and voice-activated controls on smartphones and smart pads have made this technology even more accessible to people with cerebral palsy.
The Cost of Assistive Technology
Parents looking for financial help for assistive technology for their child can connect with various federal government programs. These programs are often run by hospitals and clinics that provide early intervention services that can include evaluation and guidance for selecting and using assistive technology. When a child with cerebral palsy enters school, the cost of assistive technology is generally covered through their 504 plan. The 504 Plan requires that children with disabilities receive the appropriate accommodations they need to succeed in school. (3)
Your child may also have an individualized education program (IEP), which will detail how assistive technology can help serve their needs. A child’s 504 plan or IEP should also provide an evaluation to determine what technology will be needed, as well as training so that students, parents, and other staff know how to use the technology. The student can take the technology home with them, but they cannot keep the technology when they are no longer enrolled in the school.
Some assistive technology may be covered by your health insurance plan, but sometimes getting coverage for new technology can be difficult to navigate. Social Security, Medicaid, veterans assistance, and other government programs may cover the cost if the technology is prescribed by a medical professional. Rehabilitation services and job training can also include assistive technology, and employers may sometimes cover the cost as well. Check out the assistive technology program in your state to see what services are provided. (4)
Parents of children with cerebral palsy and adults with cerebral palsy are encouraged to reach out to national nonprofit organizations like United Cerebral Palsy, the Cerebral Palsy Foundation, and others to connect with resources that provide financial assistance for assistive technology. There may be a local branch or organization in your community that can also provide additional guidance about choosing and paying for assistive technology.
Getting Started With Assistive Technology
Assistive technology can be prescribed or recommended by a number of professionals. Assistive technology consultants provide valuable insight into selecting, learning to use, and maintaining the devices. Advisers can also include doctors, physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, and many others.
It’s important to remember that technology needs may change as a person grows and develops. Technology should match the developmental needs of children and be reevaluated regularly. Similarly, adults with cerebral palsy have unique and changing needs, requiring technology to be adjusted over time.
“People need to be pragmatic about their child’s needs,” advises Richard Ellenson, the former CEO of the Cerebral Palsy Foundation and the parent of a son with CP. “They also need to let the child take responsibility for learning how to use the assistive technology. The temptation is so often to think that assistive technology will solve everything perfectly, and it doesn’t. Assistive technology is the support — it’s part of a powerful ecosystem that can let a child or an adult be more successful in life.”
Ellenson also recommends that parents practice patience as their children learn and adjust to assistive technology. “We don’t expect a kindergartner to learn the alphabet in a week. We expect it to happen over the course of months. We think that if we put technology in front of somebody, they’ll be using it tomorrow. But that doesn’t happen either. You have to believe in the goal and then spend some time working to get there.”
If you’re not sure where to get started with assistive technology for cerebral palsy, you can connect with your local medical center to see what programs are available for you or your child. Smartphone apps like CP Channel, provided by the Cerebral Palsy Foundation, can also provide education about assistive technology. With the right support and guidance, assistive technology can play an important role in the life of your child.