What is Assistive Software?

G. Wiesen

Assistive software are programs, often used with specialized hardware, designed to work effectively for someone who may have a disability or physical limitation. Such programs can allow someone who is blind or has a visual impairment to use a computer and be aware of what is displayed on screen. Similarly, other programs may work by allowing someone with physical impairments afflicting his or her hands to still use input devices, such as a large mouse, or through speech recognition. Assistive software can also potentially refer to more mainstream software specifically developed with options that allow users with physical impairments to more effectively use the program.

Hardware devices, such as refreshable Braille displays, allow a user to read text on a monitor by feeling a Braille device.
Hardware devices, such as refreshable Braille displays, allow a user to read text on a monitor by feeling a Braille device.

Sometimes called adaptive software, assistive software is typically designed to work with pieces of hardware to allow a user who may have some form of physical impairment to still use the program efficiently. These programs can be made specifically for helping computer users with disabilities, or they can be mainstream programs that include functions and features intended for impaired users. Such assistive software can take a number of different forms and usually is designed to assist with a specific impairment, which means that more than one such program may be necessary for certain users.

Among the most prevalent forms of assistive software are programs developed for assisting those with visual impairments. These can include programs that allow a user to zoom into images and text to see them more effectively or that interpret text on a monitor as spoken, audible words through computer speakers. There are also hardware devices such as refreshable Braille displays that allow a user to “read” text on a monitor by feeling a Braille device that is typically located by the keyboard.

Assistive software can also be designed to help those with impaired motor skills use a computer. The mouse and keyboard as input devices can be difficult for some people to use; programs, such as speech recognition software, have been developed to allow users to use vocal commands in order to use a computer. There are also assistive software programs intended for use by those with learning disabilities and those suffering the effects of brain damage. These programs utilize a computer as a learning tool to help people overcome or manage such problems.

While not specifically developed for such purposes, adaptive software can also include other programs that include features to make the use of such programs easier for certain computer users. This can include computer games with special features for color blind players and word processor programs with built-in text-to-speech conversion. There is a growing movement among software developers to include such features to allow more people to use their software and appeal to a wider consumer base.

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