Info, Tips, FAQs
Assistive / Adaptive Technology
Family Guide to Assistive Technology (American resource - very informative - opens in a new browser window)
SCREEN ENLARGERS (or screen magnifiers) work like a magnifying glass. They enlarge a portion of the screen, increasing the legibility for some users. Some screen enlargers allow a person to zoom in and out on a particular area of the screen. Screen readers are software programs that present graphics and text as speech. For a computer user who is blind, and does not need a monitor, a screen reader is used to verbalize, or "speak," everything on the screen including names and descriptions of control buttons, menus, text, and punctuation. In essence, a screen reader transforms a graphic user interface (GUI) into an audio interface.
SPEECH RECOGNITION SYSTEMS, also called voice recognition programs, allow people to give commands and enter data using their voices rather than a mouse or keyboard. Voice recognition systems use a microphone attached to the computer, which can be used to create text documents such as letters or e-mail messages, browse the Internet, and navigate among applications and menus by voice. Speech recognition systems are also used by people with language and learning disabilities who have difficulty typing or reading text.
SPEECH SYNTHESIZERS receive information going to the screen in the form of letters, numbers, and punctuation marks, and then "speak" it out loud. Often referred to as text-to-speech (TTS), the voice of the computer is synthesized speecha distinctive, sometimes monotone voice that is the joining together of preprogrammed letters and words. Using speech synthesizers allows blind users to review their input as they type. Speech synthesizers are also used by people with language and learning impairments, for example, those who are unable to communicate orally.
REFRESHABLE BRAILLE displays provide tactile output of information represented on the computer screen. A Braille "cell" is composed of a series of dots. The pattern of the dots and various combinations of the cells are used in place of letters. Refreshable Braille displays mechanically lift small rounded plastic or metal pins as needed to form Braille characters. The user reads the Braille letters with his or her fingers, and then, after a line is read, can refresh the display to read the next line.
BRAILLE EMBOSSERS transfer computer generated text into embossed Braille output. Braille translation programs convert text scanned in or generated via standard word processing programs into Braille, which can be printed on the embosser. Talking and large-print word processors are software programs that use speech synthesizers to provide auditory feedback of what is typed. Large-print word processors allow the user to view everything in large text without added screen enlargement. Individuals with learning disabilities often use these special-featured word processors to assist them with their spelling and grammar and/or to provide the auditory feedback they require to be able to write.
ON-SCREEN KEYBOARD PROGRAMS provide an image of a standard or modified keyboard on the computer screen. The user selects the keys with a mouse, touch screen, trackball, joystick, switch, or electronic pointing device. On-screen keyboards often have a scanning option. With the scanning capability turned on, the individual keys on the on-screen keyboard are highlighted. When a desired key is high-lighted, an individual with a mobility impairment is able to select it by using a switch positioned near a body part that is under his or her voluntary control.
KEYBOARD FILTERS include typing aids such as word prediction utilities and add-on spelling checkers. These products reduce the required number of keystrokes. Keyboard filters enable users to quickly access the letters they need and to avoid inadvertently selecting keys they don't want. Keyboard filtersespecially word prediction and spelling checkersare also used by people with language and learning impairments.
are devices placed on the computer monitor (or built into it) that allow
direct selection or activation of the computer by touching the screen.
These devices can benefit some users with mobility impairments because
they present a more accessible target. It is easier for some people
to select an option directly rather than through a mouse movement or
keyboard because that movement might require greater fine motor skills
than simply touching the screen to make a selection.
ALTERNATIVE INPUT DEVICES allow individuals to control their computers through means other than a standard keyboard or pointing device. Examples include:
SCREEN REVIEW UTILITIES make on-screen information available as synthesized speech and pairs the speech with a visual representation of a word, for example, highlighting a word as it is spoken. Screen review utilities convert the text that appears on screen into a computer voice. This helps some people with language impairments. Some individuals with learning impairments find speech recognition easier to use for writing text. Additional assistive technology products used with computers by people with language impairments also include others which are defined above:
WORD PREDICTION PROGRAMS allow the user to select a desired word from an on-screen list located in the prediction window. This list, generated by the computer, predicts words from the first one or two letters typed by the user. The word can then be selected from the list and inserted into the text by typing a number, clicking the mouse, or scanning with a switch. These programs help users increase vocabulary skills through word prompting.
READING COMPREHENSION PROGRAMS focus on establishing or improving reading skills through ready-made activities, stories, exercises, or games. These programs can help users practice letter sound recognition and can increase the understanding of words by adding graphics, sound, and possibly animation.
READING TOOLS AND LEARNING DISABILITIES PROGRAMS include software designed to make text-based materials more accessible for people who have difficulty with reading. Options can include scanning, reformatting, navigating, or speaking text out loud. These programs help people who have difficulty seeing or manipulating conventional print materials; people who are developing new literacy skills or who are learning English as a foreign language; and people who comprehend better when they hear and see text highlighted simultaneously.
Additional assistive technology products used with computers by people with learning impairments also include products defined above including:
Right Stuff - How to Choose Appropriate Adapted Technology
People with disabilities can use adapted technology (AT) to gain new skills, keep old ones and live more independently. An appropriate technology solution will hopefully dramatically decrease a person's need for help or eliminate it all together. However, choosing the right technology is often a difficult task. This and the following articles offer strategies and tips to use when considering a technology solution.
Be actively involved in making the decision
When the end user is central to making the decisions about technology, the more likely it will effectively promote independence. Funding sources want to ensure any device purchased is needed, appropriate and will be used. Ultimately, the responsibility for success falls on the end user. The wrong decision can mean your job or at least be costly. It's better to actively participate in the process and ask lots of basic questions than try to fix a mess later. Just think about your closets. Is there something there that you do not use? Why aren't you using it? The wrong size? Not your style? Uncomfortable to use? Ugly? It's too fancy and you're a jeans and sweatshirt kind of person? More than likely the reason will be "It's just not who I am!" Consider who bought it and if you did, consider why you did. Like most things we use, adapted technology must fit who we are: physically, emotionally, culturally and personally. The decision is more than just buying a product.
Get others involved
If you are considering getting some adapted technology, seek out feedback from others. Even when you are choosing a very simple, low-tech piece of equipment, talking it over with other users, or a person who knows you well, will offer another perspective. They may see pitfalls that weren't obvious to you. This can be especially true when considering technology for children. Parents and others can provide the reinforcement, maintenance, training and other aspects of supporting the technology that will be used. But if a child needs a computer and the only mouse the parents know is Mickey, everyone needs to be aware of that fact and deal with it. If parents or other people in the support network are not comfortable with the technology solution, then the end user with a disability is not likely to see any benefit.
The team approach
Traditionally, the user, a family member or significant other, teacher, immediate supervisor, technology consultant, and rehabilitation specialists are often members of the team. If the technology is being purchased by an agency, a school, or an employer, the end user will likely go through an assessment team or accommodations committee. Try adding nontraditional team members if you think it will improve the group's problem solving skills. Another end user, computer instructor, local computer guy, or someone good at crafts, or even a classmate will look at the issues differently and often have valuable insights. Be outspoken, and don't be afraid to be a courageous problem solver. It will make for a much more elegant solution. Remember the group is there to solve a problem and decide if technology is the best approach. It's not a computer buying club. That is why it is best to avoid a team where the end user and technology dealer are the two main parties of a team. It can become a feeding frenzy between the two. Remember the adapted technology dealer has a mortgage to pay and groceries to buy, and you, the end user, are a means to that economic end.
Focus on function
Often, disabilities distract people, making them unable to see any potential or ability. By focusing attention on functional skills, we move away from looking at someone in a clinical way and more toward a functional assessment. A good question to ask when you want to focus on function is, "What does this person want or need to do that he or she currently cannot do?" From there the team can begin to look for ways to alter the environment to enable the person to function more independently.
Thinking in general terms
Generalize about the use of the device. Where will you use it? Could it be helpful in other settings? Are there other people at the office or in the family who could use the device? By thinking in general terms about the device, you can get more use or increase the effectiveness of the device. Sometimes parents consider purchasing a computer for their child so she can do homework. When they consider the purchase, they need to look at the computer needs of the entire family. Could an older sister use it to write reports? If it came with a modem, can mom fax or E-mail work from home? A computer with a CD ROM drive or modem provides paperless access to a wealth of information. Generalizing about the who, when, where, why and how aspects of the product can help the user find a product that meets many, rather than just a specific need. However, remember that if several family members use a device, it will limit access to third party funds.
Strive for simplicity
The best technology solution is a no-technology solution. However, adapted technology users only need what will help in accomplishing the task, in the simplest, most efficient way. For example, a reacher is very simple technology. It allows a person to grab an object they could not otherwise reach. It's uncomplicated, and not very costly. A good solution? Not necessarily. It may be a better solution to move the out-of- reach items within reach so the user doesn't need any technology at all. Keeping solutions simple also reduces maintenance and repair costs. Simple solutions are often easier to use and therefore will be used. Generally they are cheaper solutions, so a funding source (whether it is the user or a third party source) is more likely to fund it.
The next step
Choosing the right
adapted technology specialist, vendor, dealer, and training are as if
not more important than selecting the best product. Using adapted technology
requires a package of both product and service. In the next article,
I will list and discuss a series of tough, challenging questions to
ask yourself and any adapted technology specialist or dealer.
to ask in Choosing adaptive technology"
But, how is that done? By simply asking yourself, the team (described in the previous article), other users and the equipment vendors questions and continue to ask until there is a satisfactory answer. Here are some questions a consumer should ask to make sure a device will help accomplish the desired goals.
Does it help
me do what I want/need to do?
any limitations or risks?
For example, a user is considering purchasing an adapted laptop computer to write letters and reports, access the Internet, and translate material into formatted braille. He should also know that laptop computers are delicate, break down regularly, have a shorter life span, and cost much more than desktops. While it may improve productivity by permitting work to be done in transit or in many locations, the repair problems could cause added expense and lack of access. Does that mean a laptop is not a good product? Not at all, it just means that the user will need to measure the pluses and the minuses. Maybe he will want to have a good desktop computer before buying a laptop. Perhaps he might buy a Braille & Speak, which is lightweight, solid and reliable. However, using a Braille & Speak requires being quite familiar with Braille. This does not make it a bad product, just that nearly every piece of AT has benefits and limitations.
Is it comfortable
May I have a trial period to see if it works for me?
Let the buyer beware. Don't get caught in the trap of thinking you have to purchase the device outright before you agree to use it. Insist on a trial period. Most reputable vendors will allow you to rent the device for a month or two and then apply the rental payments toward the purchase. Others have a 30-60 day return policy on the device if it does not work for you.
on any device and taking it home, spend some time with it hands on.
This means using the product yourself, not just observing someone else
use it, for an extended period, such as 90 minutes. Try doing the things
you would likely do with the product, not just some highly refined test.
For example, try writing and editing a business letter with a Screen
reader. Also, try using several other similar products in this way as
Likewise, speech and braille equipment for a blind computer user may work flawlessly in a demonstration. However, it can't be used on your job or with the other equipment that you purchased. Compatibility problems are common. It's not until you try it in the real world that you can be sure the device will work for you!
Is it ready
This scene is played out most often when consumers buy AT primarily on the basis of price. While saving money is important, consumers who put much of their energy into aggressively seeking a competitive price may not realize that setup, installation, basic training, and initial customer support are as important in getting the product to work for them as the benefits of the product itself. As this article suggests, consider price as just one of many factors when considering some kind of AT. Consider the past track record of the manufacturer and dealer when getting your AT. The cheapest price may have its tradeoffs. Consider these when confronting a slight difference in price. The difference could mean a long-lasting partnership with an adaptive technology specialist or someone literally drops the device on your doorstep and runs.
do I need to learn?
How does it work?
The device you are trying out may seem simple enough to use, but it may have taken the evaluator three days to program it so that you could use it. Ask about set up, what you will need to know about it, what other functions it has and how can you access those too.
Where do I get training?
Will the person who conducts the assessment also provide your training? Do you have a good rapport with him? Will the training come from the sales representative? Is there a 24-hour support line available should you need it? How long will that be available to you?
Are training tapes included as part of the purchase price? If not, where could someone get them? What do other end users think about their quality? Is the manual available on cassette or in braille? If not, how will you learn how to use some of the basic functions of the product?
Some screen reader companies produce information on how to use their product only in print and on computer diskette. Disk manuals can be very helpful, providing in-depth information. However, blind end users have difficulty getting started with the product when the device is required to read the disk or the printed material to use the product.
included in the purchase price?
Also, decide who
needs training. Certainly the user will need it, but what about others?
Teachers, supervisors, computer department people, family members, co-workers,
and roommates are just a few examples of others who may need to know
the device as well, or better than the user.
I use the AT?
Is it bulky?
Can I use
it indoors or out?
What is the
If powered, can you plug it in, or is there a power source where you want to use it? You can often conserve battery life by "plugging in." So, think about the places you can hook your AT to an electric outlet. For example, consider sitting next to the wall outlet when you take a laptop to class. You will have more battery life for times when no outlet is convenient.
Repair and Maintenance.
Is it reliable?
Some blindness organizations offer product reviews. For example, the National Federation of the Blind (410-659-9314) offers many product reviews on a floppy disk for $5. Whatever you do, state clearly that you want to find someone who has used the device. Remember that the vendors and manufacturers sell products. Consequently, this makes them not necessarily candid resources about product reliability. In my next article, I will present some questions to ask and points to consider in choosing an adaptive technology specialist, vendor, or dealer.
What is the life expectancy?
Nothing lasts forever and at some point your AT will reach the end of its natural life. Knowing the life expectancy of a device will help you decide if it's time to repair or replace the device. Funding sources should also be aware that eventually replacing the device is far more cost effective or efficient than repairing it.
What is average
the guarantee/warranty cover?
What is the
service record of the manufacturer/vendor?
What is considered
Financial issues often scare people away from devices. They think, "I'd love to have that, but I could never afford it." Don't get caught in that mind set. Often going through the process of finding out exactly what you need will provide the documentation that a funding source needs to purchase the device for you. You may also find out that other funding sources are more appropriate than the one you originally thought. Further, it is up to the consumer to do the homework. Understand the reasons of why state rehabilitation agencies or the Program to Achieve Self Support allows people to obtain adaptive technology is just as important as the process for obtaining assistance.
What is the
total final cost?
training costs? Is training included in the purchase price?
Who will fund
maintenance and repairs?
If you are working with a vendor that does not allow that type of option, look elsewhere. They may not be there after the purchase if they are so stiffly uncompromising prior to it. Look for my next article to discuss issues in selecting a vendor or dealer.
Will I need
to change devices or upgrade soon?
Will I get
a trade-in/upgrade allowance?
Blind computer users and technology consumers with disabilities of all kinds must become advocates for their own needs. Relying on professionals to figure out what you need means you will not get the best device for you. Use professionals to help figure out the kinds of devices that will help you perform certain tasks; however, the consumer alone will ultimately decide if a device works. If you are not comfortable with a device for any reason, speak up, loud and clear! It will be better in the end if you express your opinions prior to the purchase. Complaining to a funding agent that a device doesn't meet your needs months after the fact, is upsetting and disheartening for the funder and often does not change the situation for the consumer.
Finally, it's important to realize that often the best technology solution is a simple-tech solution. Consider how additional training, learning new skills, or environmental adaptations can meet your needs prior to purchasing any device. Training and environmental changes are long lasting and usually don't require ongoing repair and maintenance. However, these aren't the answer for all the barriers blind people face. After deciding that training or an environmental change won't work, AT may be the most practical option; however, always keep in mind that the AT solution should be appropriate for the task and meet your need as well as your own sense of who you are. Stay connected. the next article will give great ideas to consider in choosing an adaptive technology specialist. Watch for it!
to Buy Assistive Technology Online
Learningneeds.com -- www.learningneeds.com -- by Riverdeep Interactive Learning, delivers the best products and services (as per Microsoft) to make high-quality education accessible to students with special needs. Leaders in the industry have come together to bring all of these products to you in one online marketplace.
Note: Be sure to contact the assistive technology vendor to check compatibility with the version Microsoft Windows you are running on your machine. Also, contact the assistive technology vendor to learn how to adjust your Microsoft Windows settings to optimize compatibility with a specific assistive technology product.