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1 What is assistive technology?

The term ‘assistive technology’ is used in this course to refer to any technology that:

  • makes it possible for a person with a disability to use a computer;
  • makes their use of that computer more efficient;
  • enables them to access online information, such as online learning materials.

Assistive technology, or ‘enabling technology’, can also be used in a wider sense to refer to any technology used by people with disabilities to enable them to carry out a task. For example, a definition from Doyle and Robson (2002) describes it as ‘equipment and software that are used to maintain or improve the functional capabilities of a person with a disability’ (p. 44).

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Figure 2 This word cloud, produced for Electronic Information for Libraries (EIFL), symbolises the freedom given through libraries in developing countries that enable access to assistive technologies (Ball, 2012).

Assistive technology can facilitate access to learning material by bridging the ‘access gap’ between the material and the learner. The materials may not have to be altered if they have been designed appropriately and if the learner can access them using suitable assistive technology.

However, it is important to remember that there is often a learning curve associated with becoming skilled in the use of assistive technology. Also, while assistive technology may make the difference between a learner having access to learning materials or having none, it may not remove all barriers or provide the same experience that other learners are getting.

Assistive technology that learners may need to use to interact with online material includes technology that facilitates:

  • access to a computer and the internet;
  • access to and manipulation of text;
  • access to and manipulation of sounds and images.

This includes hardware such as scanners, adapted keyboards or hearing aids, and software, such as text-to-speech or thought-organisation software. Assistive technology is often associated with high-tech systems, for example speech recognition software, but it can also include low-tech solutions, such as arm rests or wrist guards (adapted from Banes & Seale, 2002).