What is Assistive Technology?

Lorna W.

Assistive technology encompasses all technologies used to aid people with disabilities in going about their daily lives. So motorized wheelchairs for those with physical limitations, large print books for those with vision problems, and flashing light alarms for the hearing impaired are all examples of assistive technology. However, assistive technology is most commonly used to refer to devices and adaptations that allow people with disabilities to more easily use computers.

Assistive technology provides assistance to students with disabilities in school.
Assistive technology provides assistance to students with disabilities in school.

The adaptations that are available vary according to the disability. A number of accommodations have been created to assist those with visual impairments. For some users, it's simply a matter of making the material on the screen larger. This can usually be accomplished by changing the zoom/magnification settings within the computer operating system, but it can also be accomplished with external magnifying lenses or screens.

There are different ways of converting on-screen text into Braille.
There are different ways of converting on-screen text into Braille.

Screen readers are another option; they read any information on the screen out loud. Text-to-speech or speech synthesizer programs are another variation on that idea. These programs read text as it is typed into the computer, allowing users to check what they are typing and can also serve as a voice for those who can't speak. Screen reading and text-to-speech capabilities are also useful for people with learning or reading disabilities that make it difficult to process textual information.

For those who don't wish to use screen readers, there are two different ways of converting on-screen text into Braille. One method creates an embossed Braille printout of a screen of text. A different machine allows for instant reading by using a grid of bumps or pins to represent the words on the computer one line at a time.

The other most common area of assistive technology involves interface and input adaptations. For those who have difficulty using a standard keyboard, there are variations with larger or smaller keys and different key arrangements. Sticks and wands, whether they are held in the mouth or otherwise attached to the head, can also be used to hit keyboard keys. Voice recognition programs avoid the keyboard altogether and allow a user to simply speak their commands to the computer.

Some of the most advanced input devices involve setting up electronic devices that will use a simple movement to control the cursor on the screen. A person might be able to move the cursor by tapping a finger or moving their eyes. It is also possible to create sip-and-puff systems where a user can inhale or exhale to provide commands to the computer. Joysticks, trackballs and touch screens are slightly simpler alternative interfaces.

Assistive technologies have made many things easily accessible that the non-disabled population takes for granted. As awareness grows, new and better products are being created every year.

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