What is assistive technology?

Many disabled people access and use computers in very different ways. Some of them use assistive technologies to do so. This depends on their individual needs and preferences.

Assistive technology (AT) describes the devices, equipment and software that help disabled people live more independently. Whether it’s in their education, work or daily lives.

Examples of assistive technology include screen readers, braille displays and screen magnifiers. But they can also include equipment like mobility aids, walkers and wheelchairs.

It’s important that web developers and designers learn how assistive technologies work. Doing so can help create a better user experience for the people using them.

With that in mind, we explain some of the most common devices people use to navigate the web.

Different types of assistive technology devices

Adaptive keyboards

A modified keyboard designed for someone with an access requirement. There are many different types of adaptive keyboard that can help people with different access needs.

For motor impairments

There are many types of keyboard for people with limited dexterity or motor control.

Some keyboards have raised areas between the keys, rather than the standard lower areas. This allows a person to place their hands on the keyboard before finding the correct key. Pressing these keys requires a more deliberate action from the user.

A person using the Maltron expanded keyboard with a desktop computer.
The Maltron expanded keyboard offers enhanced access for physically disabled and visually impaired users.

The Maltron expanded keyboard is a good example. Its large surface area makes it easier for people with muscle control impairments (like cerebral palsy) to use. The raised metal keyguard helps the user avoid accidental keystrokes and typos.

For visual impairments

High contrast keyboards help visually impaired and low vision users differentiate the keys.

Adaptive keyboards sometimes come with word-completion software. This helps speed up the typing process and reduces the number of keystrokes.

Some people may prefer a keyboard overlay instead. This is a plastic sheet with specific keys or functions marked out in different colours. Some overlays use symbols or pictures to make a standard keyboard more accessible.

Alternative input devices

Not everyone uses a mouse and keyboard to operate a computer. Alternative input devices give people with mobility impairments different options. Allowing people to use a computer in a way that works best for them. This could be by using their feet, mouth, eye, breath, thumb, or a single finger.

These devices are sometimes activated by motion tracking. But some use nerve or muscle signals, optical tracking and even brain activity.

Most alternative input devices work with an on-screen keyboard, wordboard or pictogram interface.

Some examples of alternative input devices include:

Head pointers

A stick, stylus or object mounted to the head that allows the wearer to interact with a computer interface.

Single switch entry devices

A button which performs an action when hit, sending a signal to the computer. They often look like large, round colourful buttons.

You can customise the switch to perform any action you want it to. Some people may use multiple switches to perform different functions. Multiple switch setups are popular in the video gaming community.

Foot switches

Foot switches work in a similar way to single switch devices. But instead of buttons, they look like pedals.

Sip-and-puff switches

A device that allows the user to operate a computer by inhaling and exhaling small breaths of air. The sip and puff device is connected to a computer interface that scans the screen.

When the part of the screen the user wants to interact with comes into focus, they can ‘click’ on the area by breathing in or out. (Depending on how they choose to customise it).

You can see how a sip and puff switch works for Jared, who has cerebral palsy, in the video below.

Eye-tracking software

Eye-tracking software follows the movement of the eyes to allow the user to navigate through web pages and type on a custom screen.

Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) tool

A range of tools and methods to help people who are non-verbal or struggle with speech. It enhances effective communication.

Augmentative and Alternative Communication methods can include signs and gestures, as well as electronic systems. Electronic systems may use simple word boards or picture boards

One of the most famous examples of an AAC system is the electronic device Stephen Hawking used to communicate.

Different types of ACC device include voice output communication aids (VOCAs). These are also called speech-generating devices (SGDs). Both machines produce synthesised speech to help people who are non-verbal.

You can see how Elle who has cerebral palsy, uses a Dynavox AAC device to communicate in the video below.

Braille display

A refreshable, tactile braille display converts the digital text on the screen into braille. They are normally connected to a computer, smartphone or tablet using Bluetooth or USB.

The device includes a braille keyboard as well as a QWERTY keyboard. Giving blind and visually impaired people the option to use either.

Braille notetaker

A small, portable, electronic device used for writing and reading information in braille. A braille notetaker uses both synthesised speech and a braille display. Blind, deaf-blind and visually impaired people use them to read, write and take notes.

Despite the name, braille notetakers do more than just convert information into braille. As well as offering access to the internet, email and a media player. Most notetakers also include applications like a calendar, clock and PDF reader.

Dictation software

Dictation software converts speech to text. It also carries out commands, like “press enter” or “delete that”. Dictation software is also called Speech-To-Text or voice recognition software.

The most popular dictation software is Dragon. It is now also available on many smartphones and tablets. Dictation software is widely used by people with motor impairments. But people with learning difficulties like dyslexia also benefit from them.

Electronic magnifiers

A device which magnifies text. There are various forms of electronic magnifiers which come in all different sizes.

Some electronic magnifiers have a camera system which displays a magnified image on a monitor. This can be helpful for reading and carrying out everyday tasks.

Many electronic magnifiers allow the user to adjust the colour and screen mode. This is helpful for people with colour blindness, or sensitivity to glare.

Some electronic magnifiers are portable and hand-held, so they are easy to use on the go.

Optical Character Recognition software (OCR)

Optical Character Recognition software turns printed documents into digital text. OCR technology picks out individual letters, numbers and special characters and turns these into text.

OCR technology can work with scanned images and documents. It can also turn PDFs into word processor documents.

Digital text is a more accessible format than a handwritten note. Digital text is one of several formats that make printed information more accessible. (Others include large print, audio and braille.)

With digital text, the user can customise the text to read more comfortably. This is helpful for people with low vision who need to edit this digital text for further clarity. For example, enlarging and highlighting words, or changing the colour of the text or background.

Screen magnification software

Magnification software increases the size of text, images or graphics on a screen. Screen magnification software also enlarges the cursor size too, so it’s easier to find on the screen. The user can then zoom in and out of the parts of the screen they need.

It can also emphasise a particular area, as well as invert colours.

Many devices come with a built-in magnifier, such as the magnifier app on Windows, or magnification software on Mac and iOS. Other examples of magnification software include Windows Magnifier and Zoom on Macs.

Some of the software has both magnification and speech functionality. These include ZoomText Fusion and SuperNova.

Screen reader software

Screen readers read out loud everything that’s on the screen. Users tend to navigate web pages using shortcuts, like the ‘tab’ key.

They also work with braille display devices, to convert on-screen information into braille. They work with everyday applications, as well as some of the more complex ones.

Some popular screen readers include JAWS, VoiceOver (Apple), NVDA and Narrator (Windows).

Text to Speech Software (TTS)

Software that reads text out loud. Text to speech software is sometimes referred to as TTS, or ‘read aloud’ technology. It is available on most modern computer and mobile devices.

It turns text found in documents, webpages and emails into synthesised speech. Making them more accessible to people who are blind, visually impaired or dyslexic.

More assistive technology resources

Keyboard and mouse alternatives and adaptations (AbilityNet)
Assistive Technology for writing (Understood.org)
Assistive Technology for reading (Understood.org)
How People with Disabilities Use the Web: Tools and Techniques