1.1 Types of assistive technology
There are many types of assistive technology. Some common tools are listed below:
- Display enhancement tools. Among other things, these might be used to adjust colour combinations on screen, to magnify text or particular areas of the screen, or to make the cursor more obvious.
- Audio tools. Learners might use these to read text from the screen aloud (also known as text-to-speech), to translate or define key words, or to record contributions or feedback. Note the distinction between text-to-speech tools, which require the learner to select the text to be read and are commonly used by people with dyslexia or a degree of vision impairment, and the much more complex screen readers.
- Screen readers. These tools read everything presented on screen, as well as navigation options and menus. They are used by people who have blindness or severe vision impairment to operate their computer, as well as to read on-screen text. Screen readers can take a long time to learn to use, but when users are expert they can often listen to items being read out at a much greater speed than regular speech.
- Writing tools. These may help learners with spelling or sentence construction, or those who cannot use a keyboard to enter text by other means. On-screen keyboards can help learners to enter text by using a switch or pressing the space bar; alternative entry tools can help learners to enter text by nudging a mouse or, for example, using their tongue, and speech-recognition tools can help learners to enter text by speech.
- Planning tools. These include tools that create thought maps (and convert these to nested lists, or vice versa), as well as tools for annotating the screen as reminders or planning aids.
Assistive technologies are not always separate items to be purchased by the user. Often mainstream technologies have assistive features built in. Operating systems such as Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac OS contain built-in assistive technologies such as display enhancement tools and audio tools. Word-processing software often includes tools such as magnification controls, navigation via headings and readability checkers. Modern internet browsers also contain a range of assistive features. Because these are readily available, you can try some of these tools yourself to get a sense of how they work.
Activity 1 Identifying assistive technology in user stories
Read through the W3C’s Stories of Web Users [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] resource.
As you read the stories, make notes about any of the assistive technologies and accessibility issues mentioned that you were not already aware of.
While it is not necessary for everyone to become an expert in assistive technologies, it is a valuable exercise to familiarise yourself with the range of tools available, particularly those available at no cost in browsers and operating systems. This activity helps to highlight some features that you may not have been aware of.
It is important to be aware of the kinds of assistive technologies learners may have available to help them access online education. However, this is only one part of the story. In order to minimise barriers to students with disabilities, you need to deliver accessible learning materials. Assistive technologies often only function at their best if learning materials have been designed with accessibility in mind. This is considered in the next section.