How can people with mobility impairments operate computers?

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Adaptive technology can allow a person with a mobility impairment to use all of the capabilities of a computer. While it is helpful to recognize the specific limitations of an individual, it is more important to focus on the task to be completed 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 can then be explored that provide access to software or to a specific device, such as a keyboard or mouse.

Input

  1. Wheelchairs may reduce access to the computer station itself:
    • Equipment that provides flexibility in the positioning of monitors, keyboards, documentation, and tabletops is useful for many individuals with disabilities.
    • Plugging all computer components into power outlet strips with accessible on/off switches makes it possible for some individuals to turn equipment on and off independently.
  2. Minor modifications may permit access for some individuals:
    • Keyguards (solid templates with holes over each key to assist with precise selection) can be used by those with limited fine motor control.
    • For individuals who need to operate the computer with one hand, left- and right-handed keyboards are available. They provide more efficient key arrangements than standard keyboards designed for two-handed users.
    • Individuals who have use of one finger or have access to a mouth- or headstick or some other pointing device can control the computer by pressing keys with the pointing device.
    • Software utilities can electronically "hold down" or latch the SHIFT, CONTROL, and other keys until the user activates another key. This "StickyKeys" function allows the individual to use sequential activations to input commands that normally require keys to be pressed simultaneously. An example would be the control key followed by the letter V key for "pasting" instead of the simultaneous activation of those two keys.
    • The key repeat function can be disabled for those who cannot release a key quickly enough to avoid multiple selections.
    • Sometimes repositioning the keyboard and monitor can enhance accessibility. For example, mounting keyboards perpendicular to tables or wheelchair trays at head height can assist individuals who use head-pointing devices to press keys.
  3. Alternative keyboards/mice may assist individuals with greater limitations:
    • Expanded keyboards (larger keys spaced far apart) can replace standard keyboards for those with limited fine motor control.
    • [The Mini Keyboard is shown with characters on very small green keys and computer commands on small blue and red keys.]
      Mini Keyboard
      Mini keyboards provide access to those who have fine motor control but lack a range of motion great enough to use a standard keyboard.
    • Trackballs and specialized input devices can replace mice.
  4. Virtual keyboards may be useful for those with the most severe limitations:
    • Scanning input allows the individual to make selections with one or more switches, activated by movement of the head, finger, foot, breath, etc. In scanning, lights or cursors move sequentially across letters and symbols on the computer screen. The individual makes a selection by activating a specially tailored switch when the cursor is on the desired character or command.
  5. In Morse code input, users activate two switches (e.g., a sip-and-puff switch or two head switches) to produce the dots and dashes. Special adaptive hardware and software translate Morse code into the equivalent of keyboard characters or commands on the computer.
  6. Speech input is an option for speaking individuals with disabilities. Speech recognition systems allow users to control computers by speaking words and letters. Although some systems recognize limited commands from any clear voice, the most efficient systems are "trained" to recognize the individual speech pattern of one specific user.
    [A young woman shown with a headset and microphone as she uses speech recognition software.] Select the image to the right to view a captioned video clip, in Real Player format, about speech recognition software.
  7. Alternative file storage may enhance performance:
    • Disk guides can assist with inserting and removing disks.
    • A dedicated hard disk and/or computer network access can eliminate or reduce the necessity to do so.
  8. Special software can further aid those with mobility impairments:
    • Abbreviation expansion (macro) can reduce input demands for commonly used text and keyboard commands. For example, "UW + SPACE BAR" could be a macro for "The University of Washington".
    • Word prediction software anticipates entire words after several keystrokes and increases input speed. For example, if the user types "uni", the software is likely to predict "university", along with "uniform", "uninformed", etc. Selecting the predicted word saves keystrokes, time, and energy for the user.

Output

Viewing and reading screen output does not typically present a challenge to individuals with mobility impairments. However, it is important to remember that learning, sensory, or other disabilities may co-exist with a mobility impairment and can create additional computer access challenges. In some cases individuals may need assistance from others to retrieve output from printers.

Documentation

Many documents are now available online or via electronic files. People who have difficulty manipulating books or pages within books can access this material through their computer system. Here are a few examples:

  • Textbooks or portions of textbooks: These can be scanned into the individual's computer or a class website. This makes the material accessible to people who have difficulty physically manipulating books or turning pages within books.
  • Electronic readings: Many universities now put "reserved readings" into electronic files accessible via the Internet. As with textbooks, these are more accessible to individuals who cannot turn pages.
  • Electronic references: It is easier to use a dictionary or thesaurus that is online rather than reaching for a hard copy of the reference book.
  • On-screen help: Many companies provide technical support through web-based "help" files. If these files are designed to be accessible, they can provide information efficiently to individuals with mobility impairments.

For more information, consult Working Together: People with Disabilities and Computer Technology, Working Together: Computers and People with Mobility Impairments, and Technology and Universal Design.

Last update or review: January 22, 2013