Assistive and Adaptive Technologies

These groups of hardware and software devices facilitate the use of modern digital technologies for those with various types of disabilities. Assistive technologies help those with visual or hearing impairments, motor skills deficiencies, physical ailments, and other disabilities better utilize computers and other electronic devices. For example, a screen reader (such as JAWS) can verbally "speak" the contents of a document or web page to assist sightless users; and, captioning on television programs and online video can help users with a loss of hearing understand the full meaning of a presentation or other work.

Microsoft's Windows operating system offers significant resources to assist users with disabilities. Users can easily change settings to increase contrast when viewing the computer screen. For example, some users with limited vision have great difficulty discerning black text on a white background (a common way to view text). By changing the display settings to "high-contrast", users can now view white text on a black background -- a more readable combination for that set of disabled users. The new version of Microsoft's popular operating system, Windows Vista, offers a myriad of assistive options for those with disabilities and other impairments. In addition to the display contrast settings as discussed, Vista offers a built-in screen reader, speech recognition, settings for making the mouse and keyboard easier to use, and countless other options to help a wide variety of users.


The Ease of Access screen from Microsoft Windows Vista.

Assistive Technologies for Input

According to Wikipedia, several input technologies help users by improving ergonomics. Examples include:
  • Ergonomic keyboards reduce the discomfort and strain of typing.
  • Chorded keyboards have a handful of keys (one per digit per hand) to type by ‘chords’ which produce different letters and keys.
  • Expanded keyboards with larger, more widely-spaced keys.
  • Compact and miniature keyboards.
  • Dvorak Simplified Keyboard layout, in which the most common keys are located at either the left or right side of the keyboard.
Other technologies modify typical input devices making them easier to see and understand:
  • Keyboards with lowercase keys
  • Keyboards with big keys.
  • Large print keyboard with high contrast colors (such as white on black, black on white, and black on ivory).
  • Large print adhesive keyboard stickers in high contrast colors (such as white on black, black on white, and black on yellow).
  • Locator dots help find the ‘home’ keys, F and J, on the keyboard.
  • Scroll wheels on mice remove the need to locate the scrolling interface on the computer screen.
Alternatively, software can augment normal input technologies making them more functional and easy to use:
  • Keyboard shortcuts and mouse keys allow the user to substitute keyboarding for mouse actions. Macro recorders can greatly extend the range and sophistication of keyboard shortcuts.
  • Sticky keys allows characters or commands to be typed without having to hold down a modifier key (Shift, Ctrl, Alt) while pressing a second key. Similarly, ClickLock is a Microsoft Windows features that remembers a mouse button is down so that items can be highlighted or dragged without holding the mouse button down throughout.
  • Customization of mouse or mouse alternatives' responsiveness to movement, double-clicking, and so forth.
  • ToggleKeys is a feature of Microsoft Windows 95 onwards. A high sound is heard when the CAPS LOCK, SCROLL LOCK, or NUM LOCK key is switched on and a low sound is heard when any of those keys are switched off.
  • Customization of pointer appearance, such as size, color and shape.
  • Predictive text
  • Spell checkers and grammar checkers

Assistive Technology Packages

The Gemini Augmentative and Alternative Communication Device is designed to help people with learning, communication, or computer access difficulties lead more independent and productive lives. There are many communication devices available for people with disabilities, but unlike most of the others this is an actual computer, providing access to the Internet as well as any software applications the user installs. Built on the body of an Apple iBook, the Gemini, designed by Assistive Technology, Inc. of Newton, Massachusetts.

Companies like DynaVOX, GUS Communications, and Inclusive Technologies manufacture communication devices and software for people with ALS, Autism and other disabilities that makes it difficult for them to communicate. Many of the devices are custom made and help overcome difficulties for particular disabilities, but more and more are using computer technology that is adapted with software and new input devices to help those with disabilities lead independent, productive lives.

Videos Illustrating Assistive Technology

Here is a marketing piece about an assistive technology for the deaf:

Here is an example of a severe disability that is somewhat overcome with assistive technology and a lot of faith:

Other Devices

Other Devices have been adapted and developed as aids for the handicapped in day to day living, not just in using computers. LEO is one that can speak for a person and includes an infrared that can be used to control switches and electronic equipment through its touch pad. This and other devices can "speak" preset phrases, compose emails and browse the web using an icon interface. To varying degrees these devices use familiar PC hardware and software with specialty adaptations.

Telecommunications Devices for the Deaf (TDD) devices have long been the communication standard for the hearing impaired and are still in use. At its simplest, a TDD couples to a phone line (land line or cellular today, of course) and communicates a line at aa time using the 5 bit Baudot encoding sequence to maintain compatibility with then (1968) existing TTY devices, and not the more familiar ASCII encoding format. There are modems available to convert ASCII to Baudot.