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Adaptive Technology

By Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.
(Adapted from the publication Working Together: People with Disabilities and Computer Technology)
Case Study | FAQ | Resources

Computers are essential tools in all academic studies. They can enhance the independence, productivity, and capabilities of people with disabilities. Computers can benefit people with low vision, blindness, speech and hearing impairments, learning disabilities, mobility, and health impairments. Each of these impairments poses challenges to accessing and using a standard computer and electronic resources. For example, a student who is blind is unable to read a computer screen display or standard printouts. A student with a spinal cord injury may not have the motor control and finger dexterity required to use a standard mouse and keyboard.

Access to computers for students with disabilities involves two major issues: access to the computers themselves and access to electronic resources such as word processors, spreadsheets, and the World Wide Web.

Adaptive (or, assistive) hardware and software can facilitate computer access for people with disabilities. Adaptive technology solutions may involve simple, readily available adjustments such as using built-in access devices on standard computers, or they may require unique combinations of software and hardware such as those needed for voice or Braille output.

This section of the Faculty Room provides an overview of adaptive technology that supports access to computers and electronic resources. For information related to the physical environment and facility access to computers, see the Computer Labs section of this website. For information on developing accessible Web sites using principles of universal design, see The Web Pages section or the Universal Design section of this website.

Accommodations for students will be presented by considering computer input, output, and documentation for specific impairments. Many accommodations require advance planning with the student and disabled student services counselor. Often an adaptive technology specialist is available on campus who can make recommendations and set up the special software. While it is unlikely that you as a faculty member will be directly responsible for setting up such accommodations, it is helpful to understand the computer access issues facing students with disabilities and hardware solutions and the software for providing access to computers and electronic resources. Following are examples of accommodations, organized by type of disability, for computer input, output, and documentation.

Blindness
Most individuals who are blind can use a standard keyboard. Viewing standard screen displays and printed documents is problematic. Specialized voice and Braille output devices can translate text into synthesized voice and Braille output, respectively.

Following are examples of computer input, output, and documentation accommodations for individuals who are blind:

Input

  • Locator dots on the keyboard for commonly used keys

Output

  • Speech output.

  • Refreshable Braille displays that allow line-by-line translation of a screen into a Braille display area.

  • Braille embossers.

Documentation

  • Braille embossers.

  • Scanners with optical character recognition that can read printed material and store it electronically where it can be read using speech output or Braille.

Low Vision
Most students with low vision can use standard keyboards. Special equipment or the use of built-in computer features can help modify screen displays and printer output.

Following are examples of computer input, output, and documentation accommodations for individuals who have low vision:

Input

  • Large-print key labels and home row indicators.

Output

  • Large monitors and anti-glare screens.

  • Screen enlarger software.

  • Color and contrast adjustments.

  • Speech output systems.

Documentation

  • Scanners with optical character recognition.

  • Large-print or ASCII versions of documentation.

Learning Disabilities
Students with learning disabilities generally do not have difficulty accessing standard computer equipment. The availability of specialized software and technology has provided a range of products suitable for educational accommodations that support reading, writing, and organizational skills.

Following are examples of computer input, output, and documentation accommodations for individuals who have learning disabilities:

Input

  • Word processors with grammar and spell checkers.

  • Word processors with outlining and highlighting capabilities.

  • Word prediction software.

  • Phonetic Spelling software which can render phonetic spelling into correctly spelled words.

  • Speech recognition products can help students dictate assignments or term papers as well as navigate the Internet using voice commands.

  • Concept mapping software allows for visual representations of ideas and concepts. This software can be used as a structure for starting and organizing poetry, term papers, resumes, schedules, and computer programs.

Output

  • Enlarged screen displays.

  • Alternative color contrasts.

  • Speech output.

  • Reading systems incorporating OCR and speech output.

Documentation

  • Enlarged characters.

  • Speech output.

Speech and Hearing Impairments
Hearing and speech disorders alone generally do not interfere with computer access. E-mail can be used to facilitate communication between students and instructors.

Following are examples of computer input, output, and documentation accommodations for individuals who have speech and hearing impairments:

Input

  • Students with speech or hearing impairments generally do not have difficulty accessing a standard computer.

Output

  • Alternatives to audio output can be provided. For example, a computer that uses a tone to indicate an error can be programmed to flash the screen using options in the operating system.

  • Communication devices can act as a substitute for voices and provide a compensatory tool for students who cannot communicate verbally. This can allow them to engage in discussions and ask questions.

Documentation

  • Individuals with speech or hearing impairments generally do not have difficulty with standard screen displays or written documentation.

Mobility and Orthopedic Impairments
It is important to assure the student who uses a wheelchair or who has a mobility impairment that he can access the computer workstation. Using the standard mouse and keyboard for input can be difficult or impossible due to impaired upper extremity function. While standard screen displays are often not difficult to read, software and screen modifications may be necessary to facilitate input accommodations.

Following are examples of computer input, output, and documentation accommodations for individuals who have mobility or orthopedic impairments:

Input

  • Accessible on/off switches.

  • Flexible positioning or mounting of keyboards, monitors, etc.

  • Software utilities that consolidate multiple or sequential keystrokes.

  • Mouth sticks, head sticks, or other pointing devices.

  • Keyguards.

  • Modified keyboards (e.g., expanded, mini, or one-handed).

  • Trackballs or other input devices provide an alternative to a mouse.

  • Keyboard emulation with specialized switches that allow the use of scanning or Morse code input.

  • Speech input.

  • Word prediction software.

Output

  • Speech output.

  • General assistance may be needed to access printed materials.

Documentation

  • Individuals with mobility impairments generally do not have difficulty with standard screen displays or written documentation.

Health Impairments
In general, health impairments should not interfere with computer access, unless the health impairment involves a neuromuscular or orthopedic component. In these cases, access issues and accommodations would be similar to those presented for individuals with physical disabilities. Health impairments and/or medication side effects may impact other factors such as endurance, concentration, and memory, thus accommodations similar to those listed for students with learning disabilities may be helpful.

Psychiatric and Mental Health Impairments
In general, psychiatric or mental health impairments should not interfere with computer access. However, medication side effects may impact other factors such as endurance, concentration, and memory that can impact learning.

Accommodations similar to those listed for students with learning disabilities may be helpful.

Check Your Understanding
Consider the following situation. A student with a high-level spinal cord injury who has no functional use of his hands needs to research Internet resources for a research paper. Which accommodations would help him access the computer and Web-based resources successfully and efficiently? Choose a response.

Adaptive Technology for Specific Disabilities
For information on adaptive technology for specific types of disabilities consult the following DO-IT publications:

Other Accommodations for Specific Disabilities
Appropriate accommodations vary greatly among students with disabilities and by academic activity. For specific information related to accommodations by type of disability, access:

Consult The Faculty Room Knowledge Base for questions & answers, case studies, and promising practices.

Reference: The content of this web page is from the DO-IT publication and video Working Together: People with Disabilities and Computer Technology.