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Assistive Technologies and What They Do

Institutions and teachers like to make use of the newest features as they become available in educational technology. Frequently, this is a problem for everyone to have their personal software up-to-date. However, the specialized assistive software required by some students with disabilities lags behind the technology curve. If the technology designer does not make certain that their new tool will function with existing assistive technologies, then the users of assistive technology fall behind. It is all too common for assistive technologies to be continually playing a game of "catch up". Assistive technologies are expensive and updating them can create an economic hardship on the user with a disability. Learning the new special features can also add to a student's work load.

Who Might Need Assistive Technology

There are various types of disabilities--some of them visible and others hidden. While students with visible disabilities are very apparent and in the minority, the majority of students with disabilities have what are known as hidden disabilities, meaning their impairments or conditions are not obviously apparent or visible. So it is quite possible that you have students in your class who are disabled but who you may not immediately recognize as such. Your institution’s disability officer may have informed you about students with hidden disabilities and their needs but not every student with hidden disabilities registers with the disability office due to fear of possible discrimination. Some students with hidden disabilities may not consider that their impairment or condition is a disability and so may not have been in contact with the disability service.

Hidden disabilities can include some people with visual impairments and those with dexterity difficulties such as repetitive strain injury. It may also include those who are hard of hearing or have mental health difficulties. However, it is probably more commonly used in relation to people who have disabling medical conditions of one sort or another. The list of medical conditions that may be regarded as hidden disabilities is very long and the effects of these different conditions are many and varied. It can include people with epilepsy, diabetes, sickle cell condition, chronic fatigue syndrome or ME, cystic fibrosis, cancer, HIV and AIDS, heart, liver or kidney problems. The conditions may be short term or long term, stable or progressive, constant or unpredictable and fluctuating, controlled by medication or another treatment, or untreatable.

Some students may wish their fellow students to know about their medical condition and may be willing to discuss it openly. Others may want their privacy protected and may want discretion and confidentiality. Students from different disability groups require different accommodation arrangements and very frequently, customized arrangements and assistive aids depending on their conditions and abilities to overcome the potential accessibility issues in their academic environment.

Note that we are not discussing the arrangement issues here. The focus of our discussion here is accessibility consideration of the web-based content used in their academic curricula.

Generally, people with disabilities are grouped into four major categories:

  1. Visual disability: blindness, low vision, color-blindness
  2. Hearing disability: deafness
  3. Physical disability: inability to use a mouse, slow response time, limited fine motor control
  4. Cognitive disability: learning disabilities, distractibility, inability to remember or focus on large amounts of information

While some people with disabilities have to use some kind of assistive technologies to access electronic information including web content, others do not need any specific assistive aid. However each of the major categories of disabilities requires certain types of adaptations in the design of the web content. Most of the time, these adaptations benefit nearly everyone, not just people with disabilities. For example, almost everyone benefits from helpful illustrations, properly-organized content and clear navigation. Similarly, while captions are a necessity for Deaf users, they can be helpful to others, including anyone who views a video without audio.

Next we briefly discuss some assistive technologies used by various disability groups. You do not need to understand those technologies but if you can picture the way they are accessing your course content, you will better understand why a few design modifications made by you will be crucial for student's success.

Visual Disability

Students who are blind or who have severe visual limitations will be accessing the site using special software normally called screen readers. The screen reader “talks” to the user with synthetic speech. It provides feedback to users to interact with a page. For example, to fill out a form and has features allowing users to navigate in a page. Screen reader programs do not understand the visual layout; instead they “linearize” the content of web pages; it means that they render the page from left to right and top to bottom, and remove all the visual formatting regardless of the use of Cascading Stylesheet or a table to layout your page. For example, if you have used a table to layout your page, the screen reader reads the first column of the first row followed by the second column of the first row and so on until the last column has been reached. They continue with the first column of the second row followed by the second column of the second row and so on. This process will continue until the last column of the last row has been reached. In other words, they build a long string of the data in a stack in the order they render the page.

The visual formatting of the page is not understood by screen readers but they can make sense of the logical layout of the page if structural markups are used to organize the content. If structural markups are not used, everything will have the same weight and won’t be able to be navigated intelligently and effectively to desired sections of the page.

Screen reader programs cannot read images. It can only read text or the alternative text tags that the Web designer associated with that image. For a student who is totally or nearly blind, items like color and dense text are not differentiated by the screen reader. However, a well organized page with clear and meaningful text is important. This will be essential for students with learning or with cognitive disabilities also.

A screen reader user cannot make use of a mouse. The user has to see and understand where to point the mouse in order to make use of it. Screen reader users and some other groups including some motor impaired users, (depending on the special software they are using), navigate the Web by keystrokes. For example, you can move from link to link on a page by using the tab key. The up and down arrow will also let you re-read the page carefully. On entering a page, the screen reader will normally read the entire page. To make sense of a page or navigate and use it, the user must move around by the tab or the arrow keys. If there are elements on a page that can only be accessed effectively by using a mouse, these users will find themselves seriously impaired or lost. Students with motor impairments, depending on the specifics and on which software they use to help them, may not be mouse users either. It is crucial that everything be keyboard accessible.

Braille display is another assistive aid that some blind people use for accessing computer. A Braille display provides the information on the screen in raised dots, which can change as the screen information changes. A refreshable Braille display can be extremely useful to blind users when dealing with math content or computer programming codes.

Students with low vision have varying degrees of difficulty seeing a computer monitor, a computer screen and in reading print. Special screen magnification software provides these students with access to information technology. This software permits them to make the text and/or graphics on the monitor from two to twelve or more times its size.

You can learn more about screen reader programs and all their features at:

Hearing Disability

Students who are deaf and hard-of-hearing have no problems seeing the computer monitor or the TV screen. They have problems with sounds and spoken communication. They may also have problems with the language because, for those who are users of American Sign Language, English is not their first language. Simple and clear material benefits them as much as it does foreign students. The advantage of computer communication for many students is that, as studies have shown, it is half way between spoken and written language. It tends to use shorter and simpler sentences. The major problem in online learning environments for the Deaf is audio and the audio portion of video; students who are hearing impaired will experience problems with audio lecture or a video if text transcript is not provided for audio clips or video are not captioned.

Physical Disability

Physical impairment refers to a broad range of disabilities which include orthopedic, neuromuscular, cardiovascular and pulmonary disorders. People with these disabilities often must rely upon assistive devices such as wheelchairs, crutches, canes, and artificial limbs to obtain mobility.

While some people with physical disabilities have no problem to access the Web, there are other people with physical disabilities such as motor disability that could face serious problem accessing the Web. The motor disability applies to those with difficulties in moving, controlling, or coordinating movement of the body. Motor disabilities can include weakness, limitations of muscular control (such as involuntary movements, lack of coordination, or paralysis), limitations of sensation, joint problems, or missing limbs. Some physical disabilities can include pain that impedes movement. These conditions can affect the hands and arms as well as other parts of the body.

People with motor disabilities affecting the hands or arms are not able to use a standard mouse; instead they use a specialized mouse, a keyboard with a layout of keys optimized to their range of hand motion, a pointing device such as a head-mouse, head-pointer or mouth-stick, voice recognition software or other assistive technologies customized to their abilities and conditions.

As far as accessing the Web goes, they activate commands by typing single keystrokes in sequence with a head pointer instead of typing simultaneous keystrokes. They may need more time when filling out interactive forms on Web sites because they have to concentrate or maneuver carefully to select each keystroke.

The major accessibility issues for this group of people are keyboard accessibility and tab orders in a page, in particular in forms. Mouse driven commands or actions with no keyboard support won't be accessible to this group and forms with incorrect tab orders can cause significant accessibility issues for them.

Cognitive Disability

Cognitive disabilities refer to a large spectrum of disorders and conditions. Because of this, the definition of Cognitive Disability remains extremely broad, with many different organizations putting together their own definitions. Just a few of these definition examples are:

In general, a person with a cognitive disability has greater difficulty with one or more types of mental tasks than the average person.

There are too many types of cognitive disabilities to discuss here, but generally most cognitive disabilities have some sort of basis in the biology or physiology of the individual. The connection between a person's biology and mental processes is most obvious in the case of traumatic brain injury and genetic disorders, but even the more subtle cognitive disabilities often have a basis in the structure or chemistry of the brain.

A person with profound cognitive disabilities will need assistance with nearly every aspect of daily living. Someone with a minor learning disability may be able to function adequately despite the disability, perhaps even to the extent that the disability is never discovered or diagnosed. Admittedly, the wide variance among the mental capabilities of those with cognitive disabilities complicates matters somewhat. In fact, one may reasonably argue that a great deal of web content cannot be made accessible to individuals with profound cognitive disabilities, no matter how hard the developer tries. Some content will always be too complex for certain audiences. This is unavoidable. Nevertheless, there are still some things that designers can do to increase the accessibility of web content to people with less severe cognitive disabilities.

Students who have visual and cognitive processing problems cover a wide variety of different problems. For many, they are helped most by learning special study techniques and skills. Screen magnification software can help because, when the material on the screen is enlarged, what is on the screen becomes simplified. Instead of a jumble of many items to look at, the user can focus on a few items. The ability for the user to change colors and fonts on the display can frequently be helpful. Other users with learning disabilities are primarily auditory learners. Screen reading software for the blind may assist them by providing spoken output. Some of the adaptive software both speaks the text and simultaneously highlights the exact word being spoken. This dual reinforcement helps any learner who is readily distracted to focus on what he or she needs to know.

In summary, several other groups of special learners will benefit from many of the adaptations you make for students with disabilities. In fact, many experts argue that every student is special and that teaching and learning should always be individualized. In practice, however, both the teacher and the technologies tend to aim at some middle or average. This has long created problems for those who are furthest from this artificial norm. Trying to meet the unique needs of every individual student can be daunting. However, if you target a few groups with special problems, it will automatically make your teaching meet the needs of a much broader spectrum of learners.