Open source software (OSS) positively impacts many large industries from healthcare to education—these effects are now being felt at the individual level as well. The speed of delivery and cost efficiency of OSS enables developers to provide multi-use, flexible and readily available software as opposed to proprietary options. OSS allows software developers to create assistive technologies using open source interfaces that directly improve the day-to-day lives of members of the special needs community or individuals who have physical disabilities.

According to the World Health Organization, nearly 15 percent of the world’s population lives with some type of disability. Individuals with special needs or physical disabilities are looking for innovative technologies to help them function with ease and autonomy in day-to-day tasks and when in the workforce.

Assistive Technology Software is a term used to describe assistive, adaptive or rehabilitative devices that are used by individuals with disabilities to promote increased independence and quality of life. Unfortunately, because individuals with disabilities represent a small percentage of our global population means designing assistive technology has not been a priority. For this reason, most proprietary assistive technology to date has been cost-prohibitive for many people in this community as it is highly specialized.

As such, the flexibility and lower pricing of OSS products have allowed for more easily attainable assistive technology. Provided that users heed open source license compliance when creating and modifying code, they are free to contribute as many new ideas to the OSS assistive technology market as possible.

Due to this freedom and flexibility, there is now a wealth of open source innovations that can support existing software. For instance, Linux has a screen reader support function that can be installed on software like Knoppix and Ubuntu.

In fact, there are now entire code repositories—like Open Source Assistive Technology Software (OATS)—dedicated to storing the increasing number of open source assistive technologies that are currently available today. On the OATS website, users can search for open source software by the type of need it serves, e.g., visual and auditory. It also allows developers to work directly with users and other programmers to work on new features and reuse existing applications.

Recently, the Japanese company exii developed a 3D printed bionic limb who’s source code is freely available. By making the source code available, exii hopes to encourage innovation and accessibility in the maker community and in doing so is bringing game-changing assistive technology within the grasp of many individuals living with physical disabilities.

It is typical of the OSS community to freely share information – opening up files, publishing projects, documentation and demonstrations. This is a community of individuals who want their code to be used in as many applications and for as much good as possible.

The emergence of open source assistive technology showcases the many ways that OSS can improve not only our industry-specific needs, but to improve the day-to-day quality of life for many.