Assistive Computer Technology – An Overview

Assistive Computer Technology is a term used to describe any piece of computer equipment, hardware or software that is customized or specifically built to make the item usable for a person who has a disability. In many cases, accessibility software is developed for and integrated into generally-available devices to render them “accessible”.

People with disabilities face a variety of challenges when confronted with digital technology. Physically providing computer input, interpreting output and reading documentation often require different solutions. For persons with physical disabilities, the keyboard, mouse, and monitor are the most common pieces of digital equipment that create barriers to access, so adaptive hardware and software have been developed to provide alternatives to their use, or workarounds to make them accessible to everyone. Properly designed, a smartphone or tablet computer can be the gateway to independence for millions of individuals with sensory, physical, and learning disabilities.

Screen reader software is designed to allow even blind people to use a smartphone, tablet or computer. They convert text and icons to speech to create a completely aural experience. Physically seeing a screen becomes optional. Accessible computer equipment and software can make it easier for all computer users to use technology in a more interactive and instinctual way, so even technologically inexperienced people (such as the elderly who may not have computer experience) can connect.

Any system that aids individuals who are not independent verbal communicators is known as an augmentative communication system. The system can include software and hardware to enable the user access to speech, gestures, sign language, symbols, synthesized speech, dedicated communication aids and smart devices.

Examples of assistive computer technology include optical character recognition (OCR) software systems, which are used to scan printed materials and format them so they can be accessed by devices that provide either speech or Braille output and are commonly employed by persons who are blind or visually impaired, or learners that don’t do well with printed text.

Other non-assistive computer programs such as electronic mail and instant messaging are used all the time by the general population, but they also empower individuals with hearing-related impairments to communicate over the Internet. This is an example of truly inclusive technology.

Magnification software is also available, and as described, it simply enlarges text and graphics displayed on monitors. Magnification programs are widely used by persons with poor vision or who have difficulty reading, and they are readily available and various.

Voice recognition and dictation systems are powerful assistive technologies that allow persons with disabilities to control a computer and dictate documents verbally using spoken commands.

All computer vendors now support persons with disabilities by incorporating accessibility utilities into operating systems such as Microsoft Windows and Apple iOS. Many accessibility features are already or are becoming required by law.