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Assistive Technology 101: What You Need to Know

May 23, 2019

For some people with various kinds of disabilities, standard computing technologies such as keyboards, monitors, and computer mice can be difficult or impossible to operate and to use to navigate the digital world. Fortunately, there are alternative methods that can help, known as assistive technologies, for using a computer or browsing the web. While the term “assistive technology” can apply to any device used to make tasks possible or easier ―  such as wheelchairs and hearing aids ― this article will discuss only those assistive technologies used to supplement or replace computing devices.

With so many different assistive technologies, it can be hard to know where to start. This article will break down some of the different types of assistive technology based on the types of disabilities they may be most likely to help with.

Assistive technology for visual disabilities

The National Federation for the Blind estimates that roughly 3 percent of U.S. adults have some form of visual disability, from impairment to total blindness. The assistive technologies below are some of the most commonly used by people with visual disabilities.

1. Screen magnifiers

For people with low vision, screen magnification software enlarges the text and graphics on a computer screen or mobile device, often as large as 20 times the original size. Screen magnifiers can work as a virtual magnifying glass, allowing the user to control which area of the screen receives focus.

A few common features of screen magnification software are:

  • Enlarging the words of an email or document as it’s being typed, so that any typos or mistakes can be corrected immediately.
  • Enlarging and enhancing the mouse cursor on the screen, so that it can be more easily found.
  • Automatically scanning a page from top to bottom at a preset speed, so that users can read the text at a comfortable pace.

Screen magnifiers are one of the easiest assistive technologies to start using. Windows and Mac computers, as well as iOS and Android devices, all come with built-in screen magnification software.

2. Screen readers

Screen magnification software is a good solution for some people with visual disabilities, but not others. For many people with advanced vision loss, another assistive technology option is screen reader software, which converts the text on the screen into synthesized speech.

All content needs to be built in a way that allows the screen reader to vocalize it: web pages, documents, spreadsheets, presentations, user interface text, and more. Different commands allow users to navigate between and within web pages, like by headings, lists, or links.

Users can adjust the screen reader parameters for their individual situation. Common settings include the speed and volume of the speech, as well as the gender and accent of the synthesized voice.

3. Speech recognition software

Speech recognition software enables people to convert their speech into text on the screen. Thanks to technological advances, speech recognition software can be used for everything from checking the weather to dictating the next great American novel.

Users can also map voice commands to mouse and keyboard actions, making it easier to accomplish various tasks.

Windows and Mac computers, as well as Android and iOS smartphones, have speech recognition built into the system.

Related: 5 Tips for Browsing the Web without Traditional Keyboard Use

Please note that while we included speech recognition software in this section on visual disabilities, its user base is much broader — some people with mobility disabilities or cognitive disabilities also find this technology incredibly helpful, and truly anyone can find it useful or convenient at different times.

4. Refreshable Braille displays

Screen reader software is a very common assistive technology option, especially as text-to-speech capabilities continue to improve. For those who can read Braille, however, refreshable Braille displays are a popular alternative — and can often be used in conjunction with a screen reader.

Also known as Braille terminals, refreshable Braille displays are devices that consist of a rubber strip with pins that can be raised or lowered as necessary in order to spell out characters in Braille. Users can read the Braille strip with their fingers from left to right, line by line. Once they reach the end of the line, the strip is “refreshed” with the next characters in the text sequence.

Assistive technology for hearing disabilities

In the traditional web space, assistive technology for people with hearing disabilities is often intended to compensate for the lack of closed captions and transcripts for multimedia content.

People with hearing disabilities often use closed captions and transcripts in order to consume multimedia content such as video and audio. In fact, including these text-based alternatives is a requirement under the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1.

Unfortunately, not all websites are compliant with these WCAG requirements.

Automatic transcription software

In the event that closed captions and transcripts are missing from a website or file, another alternative is to use automatic transcription software that converts audio into text. For example, websites such as YouTube can automatically generate captions for the videos uploaded to their platform.

Note that although technology for automatic captions and transcripts has greatly improved in recent years, it’s still not a perfect solution. In particular, the software can make errors when transcribing proper names, homophones, and terms from foreign languages. Users may have to try to infer the correct transcription based on the surrounding context of the incorrect words.

Assistive technology for physical disabilities

The traditional mouse-and-keyboard setup is the most common way to interact with desktop computers. However, this format isn’t feasible or comfortable for all users — especially those with physical disabilities who may have symptoms such as tremors, pain, and paralysis. This section will discuss some of the assistive technology alternatives to computer mice for people with motor disabilities.

1. Joysticks

Joysticks can control the mouse cursor for users who have tremors or other unintentional hand movements.

A joystick is a lever attached to a base that has two degrees of freedom, which allows the cursor to move up, down, left, and right on the screen. The base of the joystick provides additional stability for the hand and arm, and the more restricted motion of the stick makes it easier for many users to accurately manipulate the cursor.

2. Trackballs

Trackballs are devices that consist of a ball stationed in place that users can roll in order to move the cursor in the desired direction. The ball is also surrounded by buttons for functions such as left click, right click, and drag lock.

People who have challenges with fine motor control often find trackballs easier to use than the standard computer mouse. Because they help prevent repetitive strain injuries, trackballs are also popular among people without motor disabilities.

3. Head pointers

Trackballs and joysticks are suitable for many people with motor disabilities. However, other users may have limited or no movement or control in their hands, preventing them from using these devices.

A head pointer is a common solution for people with limited mobility. The device consists of headgear with a long stick attached in the front that can be used to type on a keyboard or control another input device.

Where can I learn more tips to make web browsing easier?

If you're looking for ideas on customizing your web experience to make it a little easier for you, be sure to check out this five-part series:

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