Types of Assistive Technology Tools

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Types of Assistive Technology Tools

Posted March 02, 2023


Posted March 02, 2023

Web browser with an accessibility icon and different assistive technologies like screen readers and braille displays.
Web browser with an accessibility icon and different assistive technologies like screen readers and braille displays.

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For people with disabilities, assistive technologies can make it easier to browse websites and accomplish tasks online. What are the top tools your organization should account for?

According to a report by the World Health Organization, there will be an estimated 2 billion assistive technology users by 2030.

With that in mind, businesses should already have a plan for how all users will be able to access their website — today and in the future.

So, what does your organization need to know about assistive technology (AT)? And how can you ensure that your website is compatible with these technologies? Below, we’ll provide examples of assistive devices for different types of disabilities and explain how they are used. By learning about AT, you can gain perspective on the best practices of inclusive design and find new ways to improve your content.

What Is Assistive Technology?

Assistive technology is any device, software, or equipment used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of people with disabilities. Screen readers, voice recognition software, reading assistants, and switch devices that replace the need to use a keyboard or mouse are examples of AT.

Typically, the accessibility needs of users are grouped into four areas:

  • Visual: People who are blind, low vision, or colorblind.
  • Auditory: People who are deaf or hard of hearing.
  • Motor: People who have limited fine motor control, muscle slowness, or tremors and spasms
  • Cognitive: People who have learning disabilities, memory impairments, attention disorders, or difficulty with problem-solving and logic.

Each of these groups relies on different types of AT to help them access digital content. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is a set of digital accessibility requirements designed to help content creators ensure their websites, mobile apps, and other digital content work with assistive tech.

Assistive Technology vs. Adaptive Technology: What’s the Difference?

Assistive devices designed specifically for users with a certain disability are referred to as adaptive technologies. Adaptive technologies support individuals with disabilities in their daily lives. For example, braille displays are almost exclusively used by people with vision disabilities. They allow braille readers to quickly read and scan content on a webpage or app.

Other technologies are more widely used by people of all abilities, though they may be more useful for a certain group. Closed captions, for example, are useful for people with hearing disabilities, but they’re also helpful for people who are learning a second language (or any user who simply prefers to keep their sound turned off).

What Are the Different Kinds of Assistive Technology?

With so many different types of assistive technology, it can be difficult to know where to start. Below, are several examples of assistive technology and how they can support more accessible browsing experiences for people with disabilities:

A stylized web page with icons for text-to-speech and Braille

1. Screen Readers

A screen reader is text-to-speech software that presents digital content for people who are blind or visually impaired. Screen readers can also output text to a refreshable braille display.

Popular screen readers include JAWS (Jobs Access With Speech), NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access), and Apple Voiceover. These applications are customizable, robust, and versatile, making them essential tools for individuals with disabilities. However, screen readers work best when websites follow accessible design best practices.

An ideal web page for a screen reader user should be keyboard accessible and include proper heading structure, labels, “skip to” links, and images with alternative text descriptions. Implementing these features helps content work with all types of assistive technology — and can also help with search engine optimization (SEO).

A mobile phone next to an icon of a person's head with a speech bubble that reads "voice-to-text"

2. Voice Recognition

One of the growing advances in assistive technology is voice recognition. This technology benefits people with physical disabilities who cannot use a mouse and keyboard. Voice recognition is also useful for people with cognitive or learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, who might need support with spelling and sentence structure. 

Whether it’s browsing the web or writing emails, people can use voice-to-text technology to write by speaking out loud. Voice recognition can also be useful to anyone who finds typing with a keyboard to be tiring, painful, or even impossible.

Although there are many voice recognition solutions on the market, an equivalent web experience is not guaranteed for every user. Content must be designed and coded to take advantage of voice control, as supplied by third-party solutions.

A stylized web page with arrows going across the page next to an icon of a switch device.

3. Switch Devices

A switch device is a type of assistive technology tool that replaces the need to use a keyboard or mouse. It is used by people with motor impairments to access and control computers, smartphones, electric wheelchairs, and communication devices.

There are many factors involved when choosing the best switch device, including preference, mobility, and a user’s settings.

A classic example is a large, round button a user can press with their hand, foot, or whatever is most comfortable. On the screen, a focus indicator will automatically cycle through different elements on the site, and the user can click on these elements by activating the switch.

World-famous theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking used a “clicker” switch in his earlier years. However, as he lost control of his hand muscles due to his Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), Stephen converted to using a “cheek-switch.”

A “Sip and Puff” system is another example of a switch device. This type of assistive technology allows a user to activate the switch by sipping (inhaling) or puffing (exhaling). Sip and Puff devices usually come with a joystick to control the mouse cursor with their mouth, cheek, chin, or tongue. Performing cursor movements with a Sip and Puff joystick is fast and precise when compared to other on-screen keyboards or alternatives, which is excellent for drawing, playing games, or any application requiring accurate cursor control.

Examples of barriers for people with physical disabilities using switch devices include:

  • A website or digital interface does not provide full keyboard support
  • Hover-only states, click-and-drag movements, or other advanced gestures
  • Insufficient time limits to respond or to complete tasks such as forms
A mobile phone with icons representing color contrast and font size.

4. Reading Assistants

A reading assistant is a type of assistive technology that can help people with visual, cognitive, learning, and neurological disabilities. There are many reading assistants available that allow people to change the presentation of web content into forms that are more usable for their particular needs by:

  • Customizing fonts, colors, and spacing
  • Enlarging or reducing text size and images 
  • Listening text-to-speech synthesizers like a screen reader
  • Reading text using refreshable Braille
  • Simplified reading modes that hide less relevant parts of the content, such as sidebars and header areas
  • Different ways of navigating websites, such as hierarchical menu and search.

Other Examples of Assistive Technologies

The common types of assistive devices we mentioned above is by no means exhaustive. In fact, there’s a fairly good chance you’ve interacted with some type of AT today. Whether you’ve read captions on a video or used your phone’s voice assistant, you’ve used AT. And likely benefitted from it. 

Here are a few more ways that people might use AT or adapt their habits to browse the internet:

  • Vision Disabilities: People might use screen magnification apps to enlarge portions of their screen, or they might “zoom in" on content with their web browsers.
  • Hearing Disabilities: Deaf users might use automatic captioning when written captions aren’t available, or they might enable vibration on mobile apps to replace sound with tactile feedback. 
  • Speech Communication Disabilities: People with speech disabilities might use speech-to-text software for everyday communication. 
  • Memory Conditions: People with memory limitations might use password management browser plugins, note-taking systems, reminder software, or specialized mobile apps.
  • Physical and Mobility Differences: Some people with physical disabilities might use speech recognition software (for example, Dragon Naturally Speaking) to control their computers or dictate text.

Assistive technology also includes wheelchairs, canes, walkers, and voice amplification systems, along with low-tech solutions like automatic soap dispensers, shoe horns, and book stands. Ultimately, anything that supports people with disabilities can be considered “assistive,” even if it’s widely used by people of all abilities.

A stylized web page with an accessibility symbol at the bottom, next to a graphic of AudioEye's Visual Toolkit.

Make Your Website More Accessible with AudioEye

There are hundreds of different types of assistive technology available, and your website needs to work with all types of AT. That might seem overwhelming — especially if you’ve just learned about eye-tracking systems and sip-and-puff systems. Effectively accommodating all of the people who use those systems might seem unrealistic.

Fortunately, you don’t need to think about every single type of technology when creating your content. You simply need to follow WCAG, which includes simple requirements for accessible content. Websites that meet WCAG should work well with all types of technologies and user agents — and since WCAG is a standard for non-discrimination laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), following the rules will help you earn and maintain compliance.

That’s where AudioEye comes in. We offer organizations hybrid digital accessibility solutions that combine powerful automation with expert oversight to aid in WCAG conformance and AT compatibility. Our Automated Accessibility Platform scans web content for hundreds of accessibility issues, fixing many of them as the page loads. To further enhance accessibility, our Expert Audits and guided remediations help you make changes that support the experiences of real users, including individuals who use assistive tech. 

We believe that our approach provides the best path to digital compliance. To learn more, get started with a free website scan or schedule a demo.

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