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ALLY Web Accessibility: About Assistive Technology

A resource to help faculty create accessible digital course content, learn about digital accessibility, and meet the diverse needs of their learners.

Assistive Technology

Assistive Technology: “Any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capacities of an individual with a disability.”

Source: Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988 (29 U.S.C. Sec 2202[2]): https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/STATUTE-102/pdf/STATUTE-102-Pg1044.pdf

Assistive technologies can be low-tech, mid-tech, or high tech. Some assistive technologies are mainstreamed and others are exclusively used by people with disabilities.

  • Low-tech assistive technologies are non-electronic.
    • Examples include pencil grasp, wrist-resting mouse pad, colored overlays
  • Mid-tech assistive technologies may need batteries or a power supply.
    • Examples include calculators, FM systems, adapted keyboards
  • High-tech assistive technologies are strictly electronic and may require training or personalization.
    • Examples include eye-recognition, voice output devices, text-to-speech, screen reading software

Common Assistive Technologies Tools

The Right Tool for the Task 

Not all solutions fit all students but some solutions may be commonplace on campus. Featured in these tabs are tools that many students on campus already use as well as context for how students use them to engage in your course materials.

The HAAT Model

There is an abundance of specialized hardware and software products on the market available to people with disabilities. For college students, determining the kinds of tools that would be appropriate for supporting their learning is a very personal decision. A framework exists for understanding the place of assistive technologies for students with disabilities called the Human Activity Assistive Technology (HAAT) model (Cook & Hussey, 2002, as cited in Cook & Polgar, 2008).  There are four components: the human, the activity, the assistive technology, and the context in which all three exist.

The Human Activity Assistive Technology model considers the person and activity along with the assistive technology that fills in the gap to participating all within a specific context.

With this model, there are many considerations when determining appropriate assistive technology solutions for a college student:

  • The type of disability and severity
  • Learning strengths, abilities, and skills
  • Learning styles and modes
  • Specific impact of the disability on academic and other areas of function (think reading, writing, math, study, memory, organization, social skills, etc.)
  • Academic context (think academic plan/major, coursework requirements, etc.)
  • Educational context (think large versus small lecture, lab, online, group projects, etc.)
  • Technology aptitude or quotient (think comfort and facility with technology)

Source: Cook, A. M., & Polgar, J. M. (2008). Assistive technologies principles and practiceMissouri: Mosby Elsevier.

Screenreader is considered high-tech assistive technology.

Gain understanding of screenreaders and access challenges through simulation:

Screenreaders are software programs that allow blind or visually impaired users to read the text that is displayed on the computer screen with a speech synthesizer or braille display. Normally accessed using commands from keyboard shortcuts or braille display to instruct the speech synthesizer what to say and to speak automatically when changes occur on the computer screen.
 

Popular screenreading tools:

  • JAWS, NVDA, VoiceOver, Windows Narrator (Ease of Access Center on PC, Windows key + U), ChromeVox (free extension in Chrome)
  • Refreshable braille devices

Test it out for yourself to gain perspective of how learners use screenreaders to engage in your content.

  • Use the built-in tools or free web extensions.
  • Follow the instructions on the video to download the free NVDA screenreader
  • ‚ÄčJAWS is available in the Faculty Learning Lab (L201) and the Learning Commons MakerSpace
 

Magnifiers come in a variety of forms, levels of sophistication and versatility. They can be considered low-tech, mid-tech, and high-tech.

They can be handheld, wearable, foldable, digital, bulky, part of computer software, etc.  They can have lights and speech built-in too.

For all magnifiers, as the strength of the magnifier increases, the lens of the magnifier has to decrease. Smaller lenses have less focal area for viewing.  Therefore, students using small-sized, high-powered magnifiers have a narrow scope of what they can view all at once. This also applies to students using video magnifiers or screenreaders with magnification built-in.  Be mindful of how your content may look (such as fonts, colors, layout, etc.) when viewed by someone who has to either zoom-in very closely on screen or use a magnification device. 

Windows OS has magnifying options built-in, hold down the Windows key on your keyboard and the + (plus sign) key.  More controls are available under Ease of Access Center by holding down the Windows key and the letter "u."

CCTV (Closed-circuit television)

CCTV can be personalized to a student's viewing preference and allow for continuous reading. Documents, photographs, labels, etc. placed on a tray beneath a stand with a camera connected to a computer monitor will be magnified by the camera and displayed on a screen.  It can display true color, change the color contrast, invert to negative, and more.  It allows for students to provide a signature or other means of writing by looking at the enlargement on the monitor display.

 

Text-to-Speech software is considered high-tech.

Remember back to The Basics guide on accessible PDFs.  Files that are scanned appear as an image on the computer screen until the text has been rendered by Optical Character Recognition (OCR). Text-to-speech allows for the ability to have text on a computer screen read audibly or by refreshable braille.

When documents are created in Microsoft Word and saved as a PDF, the text is still live and readable by text-to-speech software. The issues arise when documents are scanned, like a digital copy for distribution, they appear to be an image on screen which is only accessible to sighted users. You can check whether a document is an image or has readable text by trying to highlight a line of text. 

Speech-to-Text software is considered high-tech.

Also called Voice Recognition software, it converts speech into text on a computer screen. To work properly, the speaker must be in a quiet room to reduce the microphone picking up on unnecessary noises. Training is required to get the software to follow commands and get to know the voice of the speaker, although the software has improved over the years for a more out-of-the-box experience.  Still, quality of the voice can determine how long this kind of training requires.

In addition to training the software to the speaker, the speaker must learn dictation skills and verify for punctuation and flow of words.  This may require editing and proofing but less often than what was required in earlier released of voice recognition software. 

 

Adaptive computer accessories are considered low-tech to mid-tech.

  • Keyboards and keyboard alternatives
  • Mice and mouse alternatives
  • Adaptor to connect to a projector/monitor/TV
  • Headphones/microphones
  • Smartpen
  • Mounts and stands
  • Switch adaptors
  • Removable storage devices

Some of these accessories are mainstream but are extremely helpful to students with disabilities. See the MDTAP Virtual Library tab to learn more.

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