Adaptive Technology

Photo of DO-IT Scholars Shane and Rachel demonstrating their online skills

Video Presentation


Using computing resources can increase the independence, capabilities, and productivity of people with disabilities. Computers can benefit people with low vision, blindness, hearing impairments, speech impairments, specific learning disabilities, mobility impairments, and health impairments.

Access to computing resources for people with disabilities involves two issues: access to the computers themselves and access to electronic resources. Electronic resources include applications programs such as word processors and spreadsheets and information resources such as encyclopedias and databases available over the Internet. 

In this section we will look at the solutions that adaptive technology provides in enabling access to computers for people with disabilities. We will explore how the application of universal design principles can reduce or eliminate barriers to electronic resources in the section that follows.

View the video presentation and look over the accompanying handout, both titled Working Together: People with Disabilities and Computer Technology. They give an overview of computer access problems and solutions. The video highlights some of the special advantages access to computers, adaptive technology, software and the Internet provide to people with specific disabilities. The handout Meet the Speakers in the Videotape -- Working Together: People with Disabilities and Computer Technology provides information about the people featured in the videotape presentation.

As the individuals in the videotape demonstrate, computers help lower many barriers faced by people with disabilities. They demonstrate various technologies that make it possible for people who have disabilities to use computing resources. These are only examples, since abilities, disabilities, and learning styles are unique to individuals. Many accommodations are simple, creative alternatives for traditional ways of doing things. You and your students or employees can generate other effective ideas.

Next we will review this information and consider examples of accommodations that allow people with disabilities to effectively utilize electronic resources.

Low Vision

For some people who have low vision, standard written materials are too small to read and/or objects may be blurry. Others may only see objects within a specific field of vision. Still others may see an image with sections missing or blacked out. Learning via a visual medium may be more mentally fatiguing for people who have low vision than for people who have standard vision.

Examples of general accommodations for people with low vision include large print books, handouts, signs, and equipment labels. The most heavily used career search handouts and employer information materials should be available in alternative formats, including large print and electronic versions. Provide seating with good lighting. Providing areas with dim lighting may also be helpful for those who are light sensitive.

There are several computer technologies that will assist people with low vision as well. Computers equipped with large print key labels and tactile home-row key indicators can help users with visual impairments locate keys. Large monitors and anti-glare screens can also assist those with low vision. Computers equipped with screen enlarger software can enable people with low vision to read characters on the screen without assistance; large monitors allow them to maximize the amount of text they can see at one time.

The ability to adjust the colors of the screen or change the foreground and background colors may help some people. For those sensitive to light, it can be helpful to reverse screen colors from black on white to white on black. Some operating systems have accessibility options such as this one built into them. There are also accessibility software packages that will perform these functions in concert with standard software.

Photo of DO-IT Scholar Keaton browsing the Web


Blindness affects the ability to access printed materials independently. Some people who are blind know how to read Braille; others do not. Materials can be taped or provided in Braille to accommodate people who are blind that can read Braille. Braille labels on equipment, keypads, and book stacks can assist with general lab accessibility. However, adaptive computer technology can afford a blind person with greater flexibility and independence in utilizing computers and Internet resources.

Computer voice output systems can be used to read screen text to people who are blind. Special software programs "read" computer screens and speech synthesizers "speak" the text. The availability of earphones for individuals using voice output systems can reduce the distraction to others nearby.

Refreshable Braille displays allow line-by-line translation of text on the screen into Braille on a display area where vertical pins move into Braille configurations as screen text is scanned. Braille displays can be read quickly by those with advanced Braille skills, are good for detailed editing (e.g., programming and final editing of papers), and do not disrupt others in work areas because they are quiet. Braille translation software combined with Braille printers provide output for blind users who know how to read Braille.

Scanners with optical character recognition (OCR) capabilities can read printed material and store it electronically on computers where it can be read using voice synthesis or printed using Braille translation software and Braille printers. Such systems provide independent access to journals, books, and other information for people who are blind.

Providing resources electronically can help people who are blind to utilize career services independently and conveniently. Some hardware and software vendors also provide Braille or ASCII versions of their documentation to support blind users.

Hearing and Speech Impairments

For people who have hearing impairments, examples of accommodations include visual, as well as auditory, signals for fire alarms and other alerts. Some individuals with hearing impairments need a quiet environment to hear effectively. Sign language interpretive services for career service orientations, job interviews, and staff meetings should be available when requested.

Hearing and speech disorders alone do not generally interfere with computer use. In fact, electronic mail can be used to facilitate communication between students, counselors, and employers.

When using a computer, alternatives to audio output can assist users with hearing impairments. For example, a computer that produces a tone when an error is made can be configured to flash the screen instead. Word processing and educational software may also help individuals with hearing impairments develop writing skills.

Speech synthesizers can act as substitute voices and provide a compensatory tool for people who cannot communicate verbally. Individuals with portable systems can ask questions and join in conversations as these devices provide them with intelligible speaking voices.

Specific Learning Disabilities

Computers can help people with learning disabilities focus and better understand information. For example, adaptive technology that provides multi-sensory experiences, such as displaying information in text while it is being read by a voice synthesis program, can increase some people's reading speed and comprehension.

Software that aids in efficient and accurate input can also assist people with learning disabilities. People with specific learning disabilities can compensate for high rates of input errors by using spelling checkers, thesauruses, and grammar checkers. In addition, word prediction programs (software that predicts words from fragments) have been used successfully by people with learning disabilities. Similarly, macro software which expands abbreviations can reduce the necessity to memorize keyboard commands and can ease the entry of commonly used text.

Some people with learning disabilities find adaptive devices designed for those with visual impairments useful. In particular, large print displays, alternative colors on the computer screen, and voice output can compensate for some reading problems. People who have difficulty interpreting visual material can improve comprehension and the ability to identify and correct errors when words are spoken or printed in large fonts.

Some individuals with learning disabilities are hypersensitive to background noise. Quiet work areas and hearing protectors may make it easier for some people to study and work.

Mobility Impairments

Mobility impairments may involve upper or lower body impairments or may result in limited or no use of hands. For some people it may be difficult to manipulate objects, turn pages, write with a pen or pencil, type at a keyboard, or retrieve research materials.

Examples of general accommodations for people with mobility impairments include personal assistants, adjustable tables, wrist rests, equipment located within reach, and materials available in electronic format.

Equipment which provides flexibility in the positioning of monitors, keyboards, documentation, and table tops 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 people to turn equipment on and off independently.

Some adaptive hardware and software assist people with little or no use of their hands in using a standard keyboard. For individuals who have use of one finger, a mouth- or head-stick, or some other pointing device, can control the computer by pressing keys with the pointing device. Software utilities can create "sticky keys" that electronically latch the SHIFT, CONTROL, and other keys to allow sequential keystrokes to input commands that normally require two or more keys to be pressed simultaneously. The key repeat function can be disabled for those who cannot release a key quickly enough to avoid multiple selections.

Simple hardware modifications can help individuals with mobility impairments. For example, disk guides can assist with inserting and removing diskettes; a dedicated hard disk and/or computer network can eliminate or reduce the necessity to do so. Keyguards can help those with limited fine motor skills select keys. A keyguard is a plastic cover that fits over a standard keyboard with holes for the keys. Individuals with mobility impairments use the cover as a guide to more accurately select keys.

For people who need to operate the computer with one hand, left- and right-handed keyboards are available. Alternative keyboard driver software can be used to alter the letter and number key arrangement of a standard keyboard to be adapted for one-handed use.

Some hardware modifications completely replace the keyboard and/or mouse for individuals who cannot operate these standard devices. Track balls and alternative pointing devices can replace mice. Expanded keyboards (larger keys, spaced far apart) can replace standard keyboards for those with limited fine motor control. Mini keyboards provide access to those who have fine motor control but lack a range of motion great enough to use a standard keyboard.

For people with more severe mobility impairments, keyboard emulation is available, including scanning and Morse code input. In each case, special switches make use of at least one body part over which the individual has voluntary control (e.g., head, finger, knee, mouth). In scanning input, lights or cursors scan letters and symbols displayed on computer screens or external devices. To make selections, individuals use switches activated by movement of the head, finger, foot, breath, etc. Hundreds of switches tailor input devices to individual needs. In Morse code input, users create Morse code by activating switches (e.g., a sip-and-puff switch registers dot with a sip and dash with a puff). Special adaptive hardware and software translate Morse code into a form that computers understand so that standard software can be used.

Voice input provides another option for individuals with disabilities. Speech recognition systems allow users to control computers by speaking words and letters. A system is "trained" to recognize specific voices.

Special software can further aid people with mobility impairments. Abbreviation expansion (macro) and word prediction software can reduce input demands for commonly-used text and keyboard commands. Word prediction software anticipates entire words after a few keystrokes and increases input speed.

Internet accessible resources and services are useful for people with mobility impairments who cannot manipulate traditional books. They make independent access to information possible.

Health Impairments

Some health conditions and medications affect memory and/or energy levels. Additionally, some people who have health impairments may not be able to visit the computer workstation in your office. Providing career services information via the Internet and corresponding via electronic mail can benefit people who can obtain access to the Internet from their homes or the hospital.

Photo of DO-IT Mentor Imke Durre instructing DO-IT Scholars

Planning for Adaptive Technology

From ideas presented in the videotape and the examples of accommodations we've discussed, you can see how computer and network technologies can play a key role in increasing the independence, productivity, and participation of people with disabilities. Now that we've considered the various types of adaptive technology, let's think generally about some of the characteristics of adaptive technology to consider as you plan to incorporate such technology into your career development program or worksite. Adaptive technology comes in many forms with many different characteristics. It comes as hardware, software, or a combination of the two. In the videotape presentation Working Together: People with Disabilities and Computer Technology, Daniel, who has a learning disability, uses spelling and grammar checking software with a standard computer and commercial software programs. On the other hand, Hollis controls his computer with specialized hardware -- a joystick and a footswitch. He also uses special software, including a Morse code translation program, to work with these devices.

Adaptive technology can be easy to install or can require long-range planning, analysis of needs and options, and funding for implementation. For example, a track ball is inexpensive and can be easily added to a workstation, assisting people who have difficulty using a standard mouse. On the other hand, Eric, one of the speakers in the videotape, uses hardware that includes a personal computer, screen reading software, speaker, scanner, Braille translation software, and Braille printer. Setup and support of such a system requires a significant financial investment, technical expertise, and long term planning.

Adaptive technology can be easy to use or difficult to learn, requiring a great deal of commitment on the part of the individual user. For example, an expanded keyboard plugs into a standard keyboard holder on the computer and operates like a regular keyboard. On the other hand, a voice input system requires extensive training to use effectively. Each user must train the system to recognize his or her voice.

Adaptive technology can be generic or unique to the individual. For example, screen enlargement software serves people with a variety of levels of visual and learning impairments. On the other hand, the mouthstick system that Rodney demonstrates in the video is more specialized.

Adaptive technology software solutions, such as screen enlargement programs, can be installed on one machine or networked so that they are available from more than one computer workstation. Solutions which incorporate hardware are often most appropriate on stand-alone stations. However, if these are stored near computer workstations, they can be easily moved to the particular station a person is using.

Given these characteristics of adaptive technology, you should consider multiple approaches to providing accommodations. Some solutions can be implemented quickly and easily and will provide quick successes to motivate additional support for the longer processes required to install more complex equipment and software.

In a computer facility, it is desirable to provide options at a computer workstation which address the needs of people with a variety of abilities. You should also have procedures in place to deal with specific needs that these general solutions cannot address in a timely manner. Work with the student or employee to come up with creative, simple solutions. In the videotape presentation you saw Mitch, whose surgery required him to lay on his side on a gurney for an extended period of time. Staff turned Mitch's monitor on its side and built a holder for his keyboard. That's what we mean by creativity!

Remember, you don't have to do everything at once. Start small and add to your collection of adaptive technology as you receive requests and as staff gain skills in providing training and services for them. Here is a sample of some of the adaptive technology you might want to purchase in order to get started right now.

  • At least one adjustable table for each type of workstation provides access to people who use wheelchairs or are short in stature.
  • Large print key labels assist people with low vision.
  • Software to enlarge screen images provides access to people with low vision and learning disabilities.
  • Large monitors of at least 17 inches assist people with low vision and learning disabilities.
  • A speech output system can be used by those with low vision, blindness, and learning disabilities.
  • Braille conversion software and a Braille printer can provide Braille output for people who are blind.
  • Trackballs provide an alternative for those who have difficulty controlling a mouse.
  • Wrist rests and keyguards assist people with limited fine motor skills.

This section addressed issues related to adaptive technology. You viewed a videotape and reviewed materials that show how adaptive technology can assist people with low vision, blindness, hearing impairments, speech impairments, specific learning disabilities, mobility impairments, and health impairments.

The next section addresses another part of the access equation -- using universal design principles to ensure that electronic resources at your school or business are accessible.