Accessibility 101

Assistive Technology for Computer Users

Assistive technology (AT) is a broad term used to describe tools and aids that help people with disabilities to perform everyday tasks independently.  In the case of web, productivity, and other personal technologies, AT might help a user to perceive, operate, or understand the technology.

Examples of assistive technology for computer users include screen readers, magnification software, speech-to-text software, touch screens, Braille displays, and other alternative input and display options. For example, a blind user might use a screen reader like JAWS to listen to the content of an online article they cannot see.  For another, a user with paralysis who is unable to operate a computer keyboard might use a speech recognition software like Dragon to issue speech commands and dictation to a word processing application.  Still another user might employ a highlighting tool like Read/WriteGold to assist with reading and understanding a body of text.

By itself, assistive technology does not ensure access to a given technology or resource.  Assistive technology can help users to understand and interact with technology, but the technology must be built so the AT can work effectively with the system. Resources like websites, documents, applications and devices should be designed and built to work in a variety of modes, including use by users of assistive technology, in order to provide the most accessible outcomes.  The best-designed resources incorporate accessibility features that work well with a variety of AT, as well as other common technologies like web browsers, productivity tools, web media and social networking applications.

Screen readers

Screen readers present information to blind and low-vision users by gathering accessibility information built into a website, application, or other technology.  With a screen reader, a user can read content, operate interface elements and widgets, and perform tasks by hearing, rather than by sight. 

Examples of common screen readers

  • JAWS: created and distributed through Freedom Scientific
  • NVDA: A free, open-source tool made available through the non-profit NVAccess
  • Window-Eyes: available for free to all registered users of Microsoft Office
  • VoiceOver: integrated into MacOS and iOS

Speech Recognition

Speech Recognition products make it possible for users with limited dexterity or mobility to issue voice commands and dictation to operate technology.

Examples of Speech Recognition products

  • Dragon Naturally Speaking
  • Windows Speech Recognition
  • iOS Speech Recognition/Siri
  • Some captioning tools, such as YouTube and Camtasia

Screen magnifiers

Users with limited vision can use screen magnifiers to magnify their display, making it easier to manage input and output tasks.  Screen magnifiers can be software or hardware-based, may magnify all or part of a screen, and may be integrated or add-on tools.

Examples of screen magnifiers

  • Zoom Text
  • Zoom tools in most web browsers

Many more assistive tools exist to assist users in effectively accessing technology.  For more information about assistive technology options at Iowa, contact the IT Accessibility Project or Student Disability Services.

Thought Exercise

Many people consider eyeglasses to be an example of assistive technology. What other kinds of common technology in everyday use might be considered "assistive"?