Assistive technologies help disabled people to perform tasks that would otherwise be difficult or impossible for them. We're just going to look at digital assistive technologies and even then, it would be impossible to mention all of them. A dilemma here, is how to structure this section. I considered talking about each different type of assistive technology but I want to keep the focus on the person using it, so let's think about different impairments, the barriers to access that they might cause and the assistive technologies that might help.
Imagine for a moment using your computer with the screen turned off. What difficulties would this cause? Of course, this doesn't even compare to being blind because you can still see the keyboard and everything else around you. But think about how you would use your computer, if you couldn't see it.
Screen readers do what the name suggests - they read the screen out loud so a blind person can access the content. Text is easy enough for a screen reader to read, but think about all the other visual information that comes through our screens. How can a screen reader read that?
There are various screen readers available, some free and some paid for. The most popular are:
- JAWS (Job Access With Speech) - made by Freedom Scientific , is the most popular screen reader worldwide. The software costs but users often buy assistive hardware to go with it, such as Braille readers and a special keyboard. Fortunately, you can download a trial version for free, which runs for 40 minutes at a time. Then you have to restart your computer to continue using it.
- NVDA (Non Visual Desktop Access) - is a free screen reader produced by NV Access.
- Windows Narrator - This is another free screen reader, which is built into all Windows 10/11 computers, as part of the Ease of Access feature.
People with low vision may use a screen magnifier or a combined magnifier and screen reader. These enlarge everything on the screen and can track the mouse to give the user control over what they see. Again, there are paid for and free products. Some of the most popular ones are:
- ZoomText is produced by Freedom Scientific.
- Windows Magnifier - Like the narrator, this is built into the Ease of Access centre on Windows 10/11, and is freely available.
Although much digital content is of a visual nature, a considerable amount is also auditory. Videos, podcasts, etc. all include sound, which can be difficult for a deaf person to access. This doesn't really require a specific assistive technology, although they do exist. The most common adjustment is to provide closed captions for audio content. These can be toggled on/off at the click of a button.
There are so many mobility impairments that it is difficult to begin to cover them all. Usually the impairments that affect a user's ability to access a digital device are connected to hands and arms. This might be that the user doesn't have one or both hands/arms, or it could be that they are not able to use them with sufficient accuracy to control a mouse and/or keyboard.
There is a variety of hardware devices that enable users to input information without using a mouse or keyboard. This can be done using a stick or puff device, operated by mouth. There are also different types of mouse and keyboard that are easier to use. In terms of assistive software, speech-to-text applications such as Dragon, can be used to dictate and navigate by voice.
Cognitive impairments also cover a huge range of conditions. Around 10% of the population is dyslexic. There are people on the autistic spectrum, people with genetic conditions, communication difficulties and those who, with age, find it more difficult to remember and process information. Often, just using plain, clear language and keeping the page layout uncluttered can be enough to help such users access content. However, for those who work or study, assistive software may be essential to efficiency and productivity.
Products such as TextHelp Read&Write can help with a range of tasks, such as reading, composing and proof-reading.