Assistive Technology

Computers are essential tools in all academic studies. They can enhance the independence, productivity, and capabilities of people including those 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 computer-based technology for students with disabilities involves two major issues: access to the computers themselves and access to electronic resources such as word processors, spreadsheets, and websites.

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 page gives 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. For information on developing accessible websites using principles of universal design, see The Web Pages and Universal Design.

Accommodations for Specific Disabilities

Accommodations for students presented below are organized by computer input, output, and documentation. Many accommodations require advance planning with the student and personnel with specialized skills.

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.

Input

  • locator dots on the keyboard for commonly used keys

Output

  • screen-reader software and speech output
  • refreshable Braille displays that allow line-by-line translation of screen text into a Braille display area
  • Braille embossers

Documentation

  • electronic versions in an accessible format that can be used with screen readers and 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.

Input

  • large-print key labels and home row indicators

Output

  • large monitors
  • anti-glare screens
  • screen and/or text enlargement software
  • color and contrast adjustments
  • speech output systems

Documentation

  • electronic versions with text and/or screen-enlargement capabilities
  • large-print versions

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.

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 that allows people to dictate assignments as well as navigate the Internet using voice commands
  • concept mapping software that allows for visual representations of ideas and concepts, which can be used as a structure for starting and organizing poetry, term papers, resumes, schedules, and computer programs

Output

  • text- or screen-enlargement on computer displays
  • alternative color combinations and contrasts
  • screen-reader software and speech output

Documentation

  • large-print versions
  • speech output
  • electronic versions with text- or screen-enlargement capabilities

Speech and Hearing Impairments

Hearing and speech disorders alone generally do not interfere with computer access. Email can be used to facilitate communication between students and instructors.

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. Speech output can be captioned.
  • Computer-based communication devices can act as a substitute for voices and provide a compensatory tool for students who cannot communicate verbally.

Documentation

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

Mobility Impairments

It is important to ensure that the student who uses a wheelchair can access the computer workstation. Using the standard mouse and keyboard for input can be difficult or impossible due to limited upper extremity function.

Input

  • accessible on/off switches
  • flexible positioning or mounting of keyboards, monitors, etc.
  • software utilities that consolidate multiple keystrokes
  • mouth sticks, head sticks, or other pointing devices
  • keyguards
  • modified keyboards (e.g., expanded, mini, or one-handed)
  • trackballs or other input devices as alternatives to mice
  • keyboard emulation with specialized switches that allow the use of scanning or Morse code input
  • speech input
  • word prediction software

Output

  • Individuals with mobility impairments generally do not have difficulty with computer visual and audio output.

Documentation

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

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.

  1. Assure that the student has an adjustable workstation so he can adequately see the monitor and access the computer hardware.
  2. Provide a computer with speech input.
  3. Assign a partner to work with the student and help with the research.
  4. Provide word prediction software and an adaptive input device such as a keyboard with keyguard or on-screen keyboard with head control.

Responses:

  1. Assure that the student has an adjustable workstation so he can adequately see the monitor and access the computer hardware.
    Assuring physical access to the computer is an important first step, however, with impaired hand function, additional adaptive technology is likely needed for him to gain full access to the keyboard.
  2. Provide a computer with speech input.
    Speech input may be an appropriate accommodation, allowing access to computer software and on-line research by talking through the process instead of using a keyboard. Library staff could provide assistance in retrieving printed documents.
  3. Assign a partner to work with the student and help with the research.
    This may work in some situations as an accommodation, depending on the nature, length, and goals of the assignment. However, it is best to provide a solution that maximizes independent access to materials.
  4. Provide word prediction software and an adaptive input device such as a keyboard with keyguard or on-screen keyboard with head control.
    This system of access works well for some students with physical disabilities. Word prediction software predicts whole words from word fragments. Similarly, macro software which expands abbreviations can reduce the need to memorize keyboard commands and can ease the entry of commonly-keyed text.

Acknowledgement

The content of this web page was developed from Burgstahler, S. (2012). Working Together: People with Disabilities and Computer Technology. Seattle: UW.

More Information

Explore DO-IT Publications, Knowledge Base articles, and websites on this topic at Accommodation Resources: Assistive Technology. To learn about accommodations for a specific disability, select from the list below.