What specific challenges make it difficult for people with mobility impairments to operate computers?

DO-IT Factsheet #94
http://www.washington.edu/doit//articles?94

An elevator or ramp provides access to spaces when a staircase is insurmountable for someone who uses a wheelchair. Similarly, specialized hardware and software, called assistive or adaptive technology, allows people with mobility impairments to use computers. These tools allow a person with limited, uncontrollable, or no hand or arm movement to successfully perform in educational and job settings. Adaptive technology can allow a person with a mobility impairment to use all of the capabilities of a computer.

While some mobility impairments are obvious to the observer, others are less apparent. For example, individuals with repetitive stress injuries (RSI) may have no visible impairments yet require adaptive technology in order to use a computer without experiencing pain. However, people who use wheelchairs or crutches may require no special technology to access a computer. Although it may be helpful for adaptive technology practitioners to know details about specific disabilities, such as muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, or RSI, it is not essential to be an expert on these conditions. People with the same medical condition, such as muscular dystrophy, may require different adaptive technology. On the other hand, an accommodation for someone with cerebral palsy may be used by someone with RSI. Also, learning, sensory, or other disabilities may coexist with a mobility impairment and can create additional computer access challenges.

While it is helpful to recognize the specific limitations of an individual, it is more important to focus on the task he wants to complete and how his abilities, perhaps assisted with technology, can be used to accomplish the goal or task. Work closely with the person with a mobility impairment to first determine what he needs or desires to accomplish by using a computer. Specific accommodations that provide access to software or to a specific device, such as a keyboard or mouse, can then be explored.

[A young man is shown using a mouthwand and trackpad to access a computer at work.] Select the image to the right to view a captioned video clip, in Real Player format, of a young man accessing a computer through adaptive technology.

The specific need for adaptive technology is unique to the individual. Trial and error may be required to find a set of appropriate tools and techniques. The person with a mobility impairment should play a key role in determining her goals and needs when selecting her adaptive technology. Once basic tools and strategies are initially selected, she can test-drive, discard, adapt, and/or refine. The end user of the technology should ultimately determine what works best.

For more information about adaptive technology for people with mobility impairments, consult Working Together: Computers and People with Mobility Impairments or view the video by the same title.