Introduction to Adaptive Computer Accessories: Why Every Website Should Work with Assistive Technologies

September 29, 2020

People use a wide range of accessibility technologies to interact with websites naturally. Adaptive control devices help people input information, navigate from page to page, and use the internet intuitively.

At least, that’s the idea — when web developers fail to consider how these adaptive devices work, they unwittingly create hurdles for users. But, by building with adaptive tech in mind, businesses can reach a much wider audience.

The functionality of these technologies varies considerably.

Some of the more common adaptive computer accessories include:

Mouse alternatives

Adaptive mice might operate similarly to a standard computer mouse — a vertical mouse, for instance, has the same basic functionality, but a different orientation — or they may be designed to be operated by the feet, elbows, or with a single finger.

People with mobility challenges may use joysticks, pen mice (which can be held in one hand in any orientation) or large trackball mice. Websites that require extreme precision can create unnecessary challenges for these users.

Keyboard Alternatives

Many people use keyboards for navigation, and there are quite a few alternative keyboards available for people with mobility impairments.

One-handed keyboards can be extraordinarily helpful for people who have had strokes, carpal tunnel patients, and other users who have side-specific impairments. Other adaptive keyboards are designed to be operated with the feet, head, or mouth.

As alternative communication devices can be expensive — and many carry a significant learning curve — some users with disabilities rely solely on their keyboards when using the internet. Navigating a website without a mouse is an excellent way to quickly test accessibility.

Touchscreen alternatives

Touchscreens have improved accessibility for many people, but the technology has also created new barriers. Many web users have disabilities that may make certain gestures difficult or impossible (for example, swiping a screen for navigation). Adaptive touchscreen alternatives may improve accessibility by allowing people to use headsticks, mouthsticks, and other stylus-like devices.

As with mouse alternatives, touchscreen adaptive technologies benefit when interactive elements are clearly defined and appropriately sized. For example, if a button on your site might redirect users to another page, the "touchable" element should be large enough to be triggered easily, and the on-page text should explain exactly what the element does.

Software tools

Screen readers, text-to-speech programs, eye-trackers, and other software can be enormously helpful for users with various types of disabilities. For these technologies to function properly, sites need to be compatible.

When web designers and developers fail to consider alternative computer accessories, they often create sites that are frustrating to use. The consequences vary from business to business, but they’re never desirable: A shopping website that forces users to scroll endlessly will miss out on sales, while an informational site that puts important information in images (rather than text) will make that information hard to read for some users.

But when a website is designed for accessibility, all users benefit — not just the users who use adaptive technologies. Many of the core concepts of accessibility will translate to faster load times, fewer on-page elements, and a better browsing experience.

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