What is Assistive Technology?
Learn how assistive technology can help people with disabilities access, navigate, and engage with digital content.
People are spending more of their lives online, whether it’s for entertainment (hello, binge-watching entire TV series) or to get important tasks — like paying bills or ordering groceries — done.
But this push to make everything digital is creating a new set of challenges for people with disabilities.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than one billion people globally live with some form of disability. And for many of these people, their disability affects the way they access, navigate, and engage with digital content.
In this post, we discuss some of the key challenges in digital accessibility today — and examine the role assistive technology (AT) plays in closing the accessibility gap.
Where Is Digital Accessibility Today?
The internet has a major accessibility problem.
Just 3% of the internet today is accessible for people with disabilities. And it’s not like websites are only missing the mark on the strictest accessibility requirements: WebAIM’s most recent analysis of the top one million home pages revealed a number of common issues that failed to meet some of the basic Website Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
For people with disabilities, the internet can feel less like an information superhighway (to borrow a popular phrase from the 90s) than a series of hoops and hurdles to navigate.
Some of these issues — like failing to provide alternative text for images — are the result of businesses not paying attention to accessibility. And others can happen when businesses try doing too much.
When these issues occur, they can prevent assistive technology from making digital content accessible to people with disabilities.
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 assistive technologies.
Typically, the accessibility needs of users are grouped into four areas:
- Visual: People who are blind, low vision, or color blind.
- Auditory: People who are deaf or hard of hearing.
- Motor: People who have limited fine motor controls, muscle slowness, or tremors and spasms
- Cognitive: People who have learning disabilities, memory impairment, attention disorders, or difficulty with problem solving and logic.
For each of these groups, there are different types of AT built to help them access digital content.
What Are Common Types of Assistive Technology?
- Screen readers: Software that converts text to audio or braille, for users who are blind, visually impaired, deaf, or hard of hearing.
- Screen magnifiers: Software that enlarges text and graphics on a digital screen. Functions can also be used to customize font sizes, colors, and text spacing.
- Voice recognition software: Speech-to-text software that converts a user’s speech into digital text, which applications and browsers interpret as commands to perform specific actions.
- Writing and reading assistants: Software that helps people with dyslexia, dysgraphia, or other learning disabilities with reading and writing. This category of AT goes beyond the proofreading features on typical word processing solutions.
One thing to note: assistive technology by itself cannot make digital content accessible. The website or content still needs to be developed in a way that supports the technology.
How Can I Make Sure My Website Works With Assistive Technologies?
A great starting point is to meet the latest WCAG guidelines.
WCAG is considered the global standard in digital accessibility guidelines. It enables businesses to measure the accessibility of their digital content against objective success criteria for all people, including those with disabilities. The four main WCAG principles for creating accessible web content are:
- Perceivable: Information and user interface (UI) components must be presentable and perceivable to all users. Nothing should be “invisible” to any of their senses.
- Operable: Web or device interface and navigation, such as controls and buttons, should be operable in a variety of ways to make sure people with different abilities can use them.
- Understandable: Content and user interface should be easy to understand by all.
- Robust: Content must be robust enough that it can remain accessible, even as technologies and user agents evolve. Websites should be compatible with current and future user agents, such as browsers and assistive technologies like screen readers.
How Can I Make My Website More Accessible?
Assistive technology is not going anywhere. In fact, the WHO estimates that there will be 2 billion AT 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.
It starts by following the latest WCAG accessibility standards, and making sure that accessible web design is a regular part of any conversation about their digital presence.
Want to get a sense of how closely your website follows the latest accessibility standards? Get started with a free scan of your website for accessibility errors.
Ready to test your website for accessibility?