Get To Know Assistive Technology: What It Is and How It Helps

What is assistive technology? How does it work? And, more importantly, how can it help people access your website?

With between 750 million and one billion people living with some kind of vision, speech, hearing, mobility or cognitive impairment, assistive technology has never been more important than it is today. Indeed, we now live in an age where even fully-abled people leverage assistive technology in order to save time and increase efficiency when working and playing online.

You might actually be an assistive technology user and not even know it. Ever heard of the voice command programs Siri and Alexa? Well, if you’ve used either of these then congratulations, you have officially used assistive technology.

As more and more of our daily existence is now based online, it only makes sense that the necessary tools are put in place to meet the digital needs of all individuals, regardless of ability.

What is Assistive Technology?

Assistive technology (or AT) refers to any device, software or equipment that helps people with disabilities to increase, maintain, or improve their functional capabilities.

Many will claim to have no real experience of AT, but it has in fact existed in one form or another long before the internet or even home computers. A set of eyeglasses, for example, or a hearing-aid, are both pieces of AT.

While we are accustomed to seeing people wearing eyeglasses and using hearing aids, and immediately understand the benefits they bring, the same level of awareness does not yet apply to digital AT.

Some common examples of digital AT include screen readers, voice control tools and eye tracking hardware.

Getting Familiar With Assistive Technology Is Important

Assistive technology is a true lifeline for many, as it enables those with disabilities to live healthier, more productive and dignified lives. Indeed, without these technologies, many people wouldn’t be able to take part in basic day-to-day activities, such as doing their job, socializing, or participating in education.

When thinking about AT in the digital realm, it’s important to remember that there is no ‘‘right way’’ to access the internet. The vast majority of people will typically think of keyboards, trackpads, and touch screens when the subject of how to access a website arises, however we should always keep in mind that there are many other ways to do so.

Ensuring your website is either designed with AT users in mind, or is retrofitted to accommodate their needs, is a win-win situation for all parties. Both your organization and those who require the technology to interact with your site will see the benefits immediately.

Abilities Associated with Websites

The abilities traditionally associated with visiting and interacting with websites can roughly be broken up into the following four main categories:
  • Vision
  • Cognitive
  • Mobility
  • Hearing
Individuals who are challenged in any of the above areas can quickly find themselves unable to access a website and engage successfully with its content.

In the not too distant past, little to no thought was given to making websites accessible for the elderly and those who live with a disability. Thankfully, today there is a much greater awareness of the gap that exists between people who can fully interact with websites and those who cannot.

We recently had the pleasure of hosting Hiram Kuykendall from MicroAssist, who in the following video dives into some of the abilities traditionally associated with using a website:
 

Filling the Ability Gap

At the end of the day, AT’s core underlying purpose is to allow individuals with various types of physical and cognitive impairments to operate independently. Recent years have seen an increased focus on digital AT that seeks to fill the remaining ability gap and ensure that everyone has equal access to websites and their content.

In the following clip, Hiram addresses the importance of filing the ability gap:
 
It’s easy to forget that not all impairments are permanent in nature, and that every single one of us is just one small incident away from having to rely on AT to undertake common day to day tasks and activities that can so easily be taken for granted.

A good example of a temporary mobility issue that most people can relate to is a wrist injury, which can have the immediate effect of making everyday digital tools, such as a mouse, completely inaccessible.

Different Types of AT Based on Disability

A near inexhaustible variety of assistive technologies now exist in order to cater to the ever expanding number of users who require them. Let’s take a look at some common assistive technology examples and examine how these are used to enhance the lives of those with disabilities.

AT for Blindness/ Extreme Low Vision

Worldwide, a quarter of a billion people are estimated to be affected by blindness or moderate-to-severe vision impairment. A significant number of these individuals live independently, relying on a wide variety of tools and techniques in order to accomplish tasks that would otherwise be very difficult or impossible to accomplish.

Types of assistive technology commonly used by those with blindness/extreme low vision include iBill readers, braille keyboards and AIRA glasses.

The most well known type of digital AT by some distance, or the ‘‘rock star’’ of digital accessibility tools, if you will, are Screen Readers. Primarily used by people with vision impairments, they work by converting text, buttons, images and other screen elements into speech or braille.

In the next clip, Hiram gives a demonstration of a NVDA Screen Reader:
 

AT for Low Vision

Those with low vision can often find it challenging to undertake everyday activities, and navigating the internet is certainly no exception. While someone with low vision may technically be able to see a website, many will struggle to interact fully with its content without some form of AT.

In the next clip, Hiram explores AT options for people with low vision:
 

AT for Mobility

People living with a physical mobility condition can often find themselves unable to participate fully in certain online activities, and in some cases their condition will prevent participation altogether.

In response, a wide variety of AT’s have been developed that allow people with various types and levels of mobility issues to be active online.

In the next clip, Hiram discusses AT for those with mobility issues:
 
Understanding the different ways people actually experience websites is the first step to ensuring that your own is optimized for all potential visitors. By taking AT users into account, you are not only opening up your website to millions with disabilities, but optimizing the experience for everyone.

For some deeper insights into the hows and whys of AT, watch the full Intro To Assistive Technology Webinar!