Assessing Technology for Accessibility: Assistive Technology

Published August 16, 2021

Over the last several decades, technology has altered how we interact with each other. From ordering food at a restaurant to predicting global events, the technological revolution continues to usher in new standards and efficiencies. These changes, largely considered to be improvements overall, can also create barriers for persons with disabilities if the technology used is not accessible. For example, Telehealth is great − if your patient has consistent access to the internet and your application is accessible to the assistive technology they use.

Assistive technology

According to the United States Access Board, Assistive Technology is defined as:

Any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.

The objective of assistive technology is to make information, programs and services, and facilities more accessible to the user of the equipment. For example, a person who is blind may use a screen reader to access information online to apply for a job or inquire about a service. Categorically speaking, assistive technology can be anything from mobility devices to screen magnification software. Assistive technology is anything that improves the user’s ability to access or enjoy a program, service, activity, or facility.

When assessing digital technology for accessibility, it is important to understand a variety of assistive technology types and how the technology interacts with the content.

How assistive technology interacts with online content

When we access digital content in a web browser, we are relying on a preprogrammed set of rules within the browser that computes and interprets code and produces an output we can navigate. That output is what has populated in this browser.

Interpreting information

Think of assistive technology as another way for users to navigate and consume content.

For example, the following code:

<p>For more information about our programs and services, click<a href="">here.</a></p>

Would look like this when rendered in your browser:

For more information about our programs and services, click here.

If you are navigating this document using only a browser and a mouse, it is fairly easy to understand what the link means and what can be expected if the link is clicked. This is because the link is surrounded by text that provides context.

However, when the same code is interpreted by assistive technology, such as a screen reader, without any additional information or context, the link's purpose is not clear. In fact, if a screen reader user skipped past the document's text to the referenced link above, all they would hear is the word "Link - here." This is because assistive technologies like screen readers scan the code for important content, such as links, headings, landmarks, etc., and allow the user to skip to that content without having to listen to the entire document. Skipping content is great for users who do not want to listen to every line of text, but without context, the link is meaningless.

A more accessible mark-up:

<p>For more information about our programs and services, <a href="">visit our programs and services registration page.</a></p>

Would look like this when rendered in your browser:

For more information about our programs and services, visit our programs and services registration page.

When a screen reader reads this link, the user will hear "Link - visit our programs and services registration page."

Because a screen reader allows the user to navigate content based on the properties and attributes of objects within the document, it also relies heavily on good coding practices to ensure the user can navigate it without visual cues and context.

Publishing clean code and understanding how assistive technology interacts with that code is critical to improving the accessibility of digital content. 

Assistive technology types

There are many types of assistive technologies used to access online content. For the purposes of assessing technology for accessibility, the following assistive technologies and how they are used to interact with content should be considered.

  • Screen readers: Software that provides users the ability to navigate and read-aloud digital content. Used primarily by users that are blind or have low vision, as well as those with learning, intellectual, and cognitive disabilities.
  • Screen magnification software: Software that provides users the ability to magnify content contained within a designated output, such as a monitor or mobile device. Used primarily by users who have low vision, screen magnification software works best with responsive content designed to be modified as needed by the user.
  • Speech input: Speech input provides users that do not use a keyboard an alternative method to input data. Examples of speech input include Dragon and Windows Speech Recognition. Users must train the software to understand their voice and speaking patterns.
  • Alternative inputs: Alternative inputs are typically used by those who do not use a mouse or keyboard. Examples of alternative inputs include head pointers, motion or eye tracking, and switch devices. Alternative inputs allow the user to select text and other interactive objects on the screen using a "switch" that confirms their selection. For example, indicator focus may be programmed to move sequentially through a list of on-screen keyboard keys until the user confirms a selection using a switch.

When assessing technology for accessibility, the best way to truly identify potential barriers is to engage the community or user group that utilizes assistive technology. However, having a working knowledge of what assistive technology is and how it works with digital content is a great start in understanding why accessibility matters and how it can be achieved.

AccessibilityPlus 2021 is proud of our role in promoting accessibility and equal access while recognizing there is much work to be done. As we celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month this October, we have opened registration for AccessibilityPlus, a live three-day virtual conference to promote inclusion, diversity, accessibility, and equal access. The conference is free to attend for the first 500 participants and will be the first of its kind with representation from Fortune 500 Companies that have demonstrated commitment to accessibility and organizations dedicated to removing barriers for persons with disabilities. For more information about the conference, speakers, and topics, please visit our AccessibilityPlus registration page.

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