What is assistive technology?
Assistive Technology (AT), sometimes also referred to as adaptive technology, is an umbrella term used to describe a variety of hardware and software accessibility tools. The purpose of AT is to help people with disability overcome difficulties on popular digital devices such as computers, smartphones and tablets.
Until recently, AT was only sold by specialist providers and generally retailed for thousands of dollars. In recent years, however, there has been a growing trend in building software-based accessibility features into popular operating systems such as Microsoft Windows, Apple MacOS, Google Android and Apple iOS devices such as the iPhone and the iPad.
Popular types of AT include:
- Screen reader: A text-to-speech application that reads out computer and internet-related information to assist people who are blind or vision impaired;
- Screen magnifier: A magnification tool used to enlarge screen content;
- Themes: High contrast themes allow people with visual impairments to change the colours to a more comfortable setting such as white-on-black), and increase the size of mouse pointers and text
- On-screen keyboard: Enables people with mobility impairments to ‘type’ by using a pointing device to select letters and words on the screen
- On-screen alerts: Visual messages can appear in place of audible sounds to help people who are deaf or hearing impaired
- Sticky keys: Provides assistance to people with a mobility impairment by allowing keyboard commands to be typed in rather than having to hold down multiple keys to achieve a task.
In addition to built-in AT, there are also free and open source alternatives available, such as the NVDA screen reader available for Microsoft Windows.
Using a screen reader
To help you understand how people with disability will engage with your content, the following exercise has been designed so that you can use your own device to get a first-hand insight into the AT experience.
In this exercise, you will learn how to navigate a website by using a screen reader.
The most commonly used screen readers include the commercially available JAWS for Windows, the free open-source NVDA for Windows, and VoiceOver, which is built into Mac OS and Apple iOS devices like the iPhone and iPad. To assist you, the following links will provide you with the essential keyboard or gesture commands to several free screen readers across a number of different operating systems.
- Microsoft Windows 10 (built-in): includes the Narrator screen reader shortcuts
- Microsoft Windows (7 and later): download NVDA and keyboard shortcuts for NVDA
- Mac OS: accessibility features including the VoiceOver shortcuts for desktop
- iOS (iPhone/iPad): VoiceOver gestures and shortcuts for mobile/tablet
- Android: TalkBack gestures
NOTE 1: Accessibility features found on mobile devices often have built-in tutorials, such as the excellent TalkBack explore-by-touch tutorial found in the Accessibility settings of most Android devices.
NOTE 2: If you are using an Android device and it does not have TalkBack built in, you can download it from the Google Play Store.
Once you have decided on which screen reader to use, follow these steps:
- Print out or note elsewhere the keyboard shortcut or gesture commands found in the links above
- Open a web browser.
- Start the screen reader.
- Turn your monitor off or hide the display and continue browsing websites for 10 minutes using only the screen reader’s voice and the keyboard shortcuts or gesture commands you noted earlier.
The difference between this experience and your everyday experience in using online content is helpful in understanding why preparing accessible digital content is so important.
For additional hands-on experience, explore the ‘accessibility’ or ‘universal access’ sections on your computer or mobile device and try some of the other built-in features.
Common access issues
The use of AT can provide an effective gateway for people with disability to gain access to online content. However, there are several core accessibility issues that make it difficult for people with disability to access content online or prevent AT from working correctly. The following lists highlight some of the issues faced by people with vision, hearing, mobility and cognitive disabilities respectively.
For people who are blind or vision impaired, common accessibility issues include:
- The inability for screen readers to process images;
- Poor colour contrast;
- Colour being used by itself to indicate a change;
- Lack of audio description in videos;
- Links that lack description such as ‘click here’ or ‘read more’
- Missing or incorrect heading labels
- Poor navigation structure
For people who are Deaf or hearing impaired, common accessibility issues include:
- Lack of captions in video;
- Lack of transcripts for audio-only content such as podcasts;
- Lack of sign language
- Use of audio by itself to indicate a change or an action
For people with a mobility impairment, common accessibility issues include:
- Content auto-refreshing without any mechanism to slow down or stop the process;
- A mistaken selection is made in a drop-down menu and the user is instantly taken to the incorrect selection;
- Speech navigation software does not work correctly due to missing labels;
- Content requires precise movement of a mouse to operate
For people with a cognitive impairment, common accessibility issues include:
- Confusing layout
- Poorly labelled form fields;
- Menus and links not working in a predictable way
- Lack of definition for abbreviations and acronyms;
- Lack of an Easy English summary sheet;
For some Best Practice Tips for Digital Access, you can download the Centre for Accessibility’s digital postcards, also available in plain-text format. The WCAG standard endeavours to address these issues by providing a comprehensive list of guidelines and testable success criteria.