7 Tech Tools which Help People With Disabilities Access the Web

What is assistive technology? What are assistive technologies and website accessibility tools? What is website accessibility software used for and how does it help individuals with disabilities online? 

Well, first things first. What is assistive technology? Put simply, assistive technology refers to any piece of equipment or software that enhances learning, working, and daily living for persons with disabilities. 

Assistive technologies are nothing new. A pair or reading glasses, for example, is a kind of assistive technology. Web accessibility tools perform a similar function to a pair of eyeglasses, in that both the glasses and the accessibility tool function to allow a person with disabilities to perceive and interact with the external world. From this perspective, a wheelchair and an accessibility tool are fundamentally aiming for the same outcome - which is to help those with disabilities to have access to the things in life that others take for granted.

Website accessibility software can be leveraged by those with disabilities to help them be active online. More well known accessibility software examples include screen readers and screen magnifiers, which allow those with blindness and low vision to engage with online content. These accessibility software examples are merely the tip of the iceberg, however, in terms of the technology that now exists to help those with disabilities navigate the web. 

If you are not a person with a disability, then you probably take it for granted that you can easily control a mouse, type on a keyboard, or click to select options when browsing onlinewithout the need for assistive technology. Now imagine doing these same online tasks without being able to see, or without being able to move your hands. Suddenly, the web is looking like a completely different place – one which is full of hurdles and limited access. Website accessibility tools exist to tackle these hurdles and break down the barriers that still exist for disabled users.

Web accessibility for people with disabilities has been a concern since the birth of the web, and the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) was formed in 1997 by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to establish standards for web accessibility. However, only now is web accessibility really getting any major attention. Most countries still don’t have any laws about web accessibility, which means that people with disabilities often cannot access and use websites, including much-needed services on public sector websites such as for healthcare.

If you want to improve website accessibility on your site, you can start by learning about the WAI guidelines and using website accessibility tools to check your website’s accessibility. However, this can only take you so far. To really improve web accessibility, you need to understand how people with disabilities use the web using assistive technologies and accessibility software. Only then will you be able to make the meaningful changes which allow all people, including those reliant on assistive technologies and web accessibility tools, equal access to your website.

Web Access Tools for the Visually Impaired

Assistive Technology Tool #1 Screen Readers: A screen reader is a web accessibility software tool which reads text on the screen with a speech synthesizer or (less frequently) translates it into Braille. But screen reader technology isn’t as simple as reading every single word on the screen (most web users only read about 20% of what is on the page, so imagine how annoying it would be if screen readers read everything from the advertisements to the footer!). Good screen reader technology will give visually impaired people options to easily control what is read, such as by finding strings of text on the screen, reading just a line of text, or reading just text in bold or certain color text. Some popular screen readers include:
  • COBRA
  • Hal
  • JAWS (Job Access with Speech)

Assistive Technology Tool#2 Braille Keyboards: A Braille keyboard is a piece of assistive technology that is very different from a standard QWERTY keyboard. There are 8 keys which are used to compose the Braille letters. Of course, there are standard QWERTY keyboards which have Braille letters overlaid on them, but Braille keyboards are made in a way which makes navigation and locating the cursor much easier for visually-impaired people.
A Braille keyboard
Assistive Technology Tool#3 Refreshable Braille Displays: This is a type of Braille keyboard which also has output options. It contains small pins which can be raised to form the Braille letters. Displays range from 18 to 84 cells. A cursor allows the user to select which text to translate, and the pins are refreshed throughout the reading process. Braille displays are fairly expensive but are good options for people who use the computer a lot, need to speak and type at the same time, or who are deaf-blind and would not be able to use a Screen Reader.
refreshable braille display
Assistive Technology Tool#4 Screen Magnifiers: Screen magnifying technology refers to web accessibility software that helps people who are visually impaired but not blind to view information on a computer screen. There are numerous types of screen magnification technology, such as external devices which act like magnifying glasses outside of the screen to advanced software which is installed on the computer. The best screen magnifying technology doesn’t just increase the size of the information on the screen, but has functions like reducing glare, increasing contrast, and improving cursor tracking.

Web Access Tools for people with Physical Disabilities

Assistive Technology Tool#5 Sip and Puff Systems: Have you ever seen a person in a wheelchair controlling movement by breathing into a straw? This is a puff-and-sip system. The technology has been adapted to allow people with physical disabilities, such as paralyzed people, to also access the computer. The accessibility tool works similarly to a joystick, but one which is controlled with breath. It recognizes sips or puffs and translates these into commands such as mouse clicks or keyboard characters. Such assistive technologies are a true lifeline for many as they give back a measure of physical control to those with extremely limited physical capabilities.
A man using the puff and sip system
Assistive Technology Tool#6 Hands-Free Mouse Tracking: There are now many truly-amazing ways which physically-impaired people can control a cursor without having to rely on a mouse or keyboard commands. One option is FaceMouse, which turns a standard web camera into a mouse operator. It does this by recognizing face or head movements and translating them into commands, like clicks. Basically, you get to use your head movements as a joystick. FaceMouse even lets users set certain movements to certain commands, like “Open Mouth” to “Enter Key.”

Another option for hands-free mouse tracking is to use Lomak, which is a light-operated mouse and keyboard. A small device with a laser pointer is worn on the head (or, alternatively, on the arm). By moving the head to point the laser light at various points on the keyboard or screen, users can control the cursor. The Lomak keyboard is also controlled by the laser light, and has an option for voice-controlled confirmation of commands.
A man using the lomak keyboard
A third option is EyeGaze Edge system. This truly-cool system works by having a specialized video camera mounted below the screen. The video camera observes the user’s eyes to determine where the user is looking. The user then operates the system by looking at special keys which are displayed on the control screen.
eyegaze edge system for physically disabled
Assistive Technology Tool #7 Voice Controls: Voice control accessibility software includes programs that convert Speech to Text, and also allow you to command the computer with your voice. One of the most well-known and feature-rich web accessibility software programs is Dragon. It lets you enter text anywhere you find a text box and you can even tell it where to put the cursor. The accessibility tool isn’t perfect though and people with physical disabilities will need to rely on other tools such as switch activations to fully access the web.

Website Owners — Accessibility is Your Responsibility

Bear in mind that none of these assistive technology tools are perfect, and they can be costly. Further, in order for many of the tools to work properly, the website must be designed in a way which allows accessibility. If you don’t put meaningful Alt text on images, then even the best screen reader won’t help blind people understand the image. If you don’t space Buttons well apart, then even people using the best hands-free mouse are going to have some wrong clicks. The bottom line? Website owners need to make sure their sites are designed in a way which doesn’t just meet accessibility guidelines, but in a way which allows all people to equally access and use the web.

As an essential part of the day to day lives of millions, assistive technologies are not going anywhere. As the online world continues to grow and develop, so too will the range of website accessibility tools and assistive technologies available. If your website is designed and maintained with assistive technologies in mind, however, you can ensure that those who are reliant on website accessibility tools and accessibility software can use them successfully on your website. 

To create websites that are friendly to assistive technologies, it is first important to become aware of the different kinds of web accessibility tools that are out there, and how exactly these web accessibility tools are used in practice. Try to put yourself in the shoes of those with a mental or physical impairment when creating new online content and consider what web accessibility tools they might require to get the most out of their experience. Remember, a web accessibility tool is only useful if the website it is being used on is compatible with it.