Accessible technologies and assistive technologies play an important role in establishing a diverse and inclusive society. We’ve talked a lot about how the Internet improves our daily lives and presents us with unique opportunities, but we haven’t previously talked about the importance of ensuring that these benefits are available to every Internet user.
As our lives move progressively online, it can be easy to forget that the Internet is a privilege: one that not all people have access to. Not only are there places in the world where Internet access is strictly a luxury, but there are also individual people for whom the Internet is less freely accessible; specifically, people with disabilities.
The Need For Assistive Technology & Accessible Technology
Corinne Weible is the project manager for PEAT (Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology) which is managed by RESNA (Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America). Their combined mission is it improve access for those with disabilities through developing accessible and assistive technology solutions.
You may ask what the difference between accessible technology and assistive technology is. Weible breaks it down in the following way:
“Assistive technology is a technology that’s been specifically designed to help a person with a disability to perform a task. For example, a screen reader on a computer can help a person with a disability to read a job posting. Accessible technology is a technology that’s been designed with the needs of a lot of different users in mind. It’s technology with built-in customisation features so that the user can really individualise their experience to meet their needs.”
Weible further explains that on its own, assistive technology cannot guarantee universal access to all online platforms; that accessibility needs to be factored into the design of websites and software as well.
Understanding Assistive Technology
According to Griffith University, examples of common digital assistive technology include:
large computer monitors (so that images and text are bigger but still readable) and large print keyboards to assist people with vision impairments
screen-magnification software, which can magnify an area of the screen continuously, smooth jagged edges of characters at larger magnifications, alter the colours on the screen to suit viewer preferences and change the size and colour of the mouse pointer
screen-reader software (for example, Jaws), which allows users to change the rate, pitch and tone of the voice synthesiser to modify how a voice synthesiser pronounces symbols, characters or words; to move the mouse pointer using keyboard controls; to read out the whole computer screen; or to read out a document from start to finish
literacy software such as Read and Write Gold to assist people with learning disabilities
dictation software for those who can’t use a (conventional) keyboard
Understanding Accessible Technology
In her report ‘Designing Software that is Accessible to Individuals With Disabilities’, Dr. Sheryl Burgstahler explains the important role of accessible technology.
As touched on earlier, those with disabilities don’t always have access to the opportunities that are made possible by the Internet. According to Burgstahler, standard computer software often poses a barrier and limits education and employment opportunities to those with disabilities. She goes on to provide the following examples “part of a multimedia tutorial that uses voice narration without captioning or transcription is inaccessible to students who are deaf. Similarly, an educational tutorial program that requires the use of a mouse is inaccessible to a student who cannot operate this device. And, a software program that requires an unnecessarily high reading level may be inaccessible to some people who have learning disabilities”.
Some of the assistive technologies we listed earlier would, of course, assist users with operating these systems. However, for assistive technologies to work, it is crucial that the “software producers avoid creating access barriers to people with disabilities and develop products that are compatible with assistive technology”.