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Types of Accessibility Aids

There are two main strategies for addressing the needs of users with disabilities: accessibility and universal design. Although these two strategies are not mutually exclusive, their objectives have slightly different focuses.

Accessibility strives to make an existing product usable for particular disability groups. This may come in the form of retrofitting the product or implementing assistive technologies and may be specific to each type of disability. For example, television accessibility needs to be approached differently for the visually impaired and for the hearing impaired.

The aim of Universal Design is to design products that accommodate the broadest range of users regardless of age or ability. This approach calls for design that is usable for a broad range of end-users without alterations or accommodations for accessibility.

Of course, nothing can be designed to be perfectly “universal.” There will always someone who cannot use a product. Even so, both accessibility and universal design will need to be kept in mind whenever a product is designed. Even when something is built using universal design principals, designers should keep in mind that retrofitting or assistive technologies may be used.

We have listed below computer-related accessibility aids according to disability:

Visual impairments

At least 1.5 million blind and visually impaired Americans use computers. The most common aid for the visually impaired is a screen reader, a program that reads out a computer display for the visually impaired or for those who do not have access to a monitor. The screen reader can read text that appears in a standard way in dialog boxes, menus, icons, and text editing windows by attaching to the operating system components that are used to display the text. The screen reader may display information in Braille, use voice output, or use other audio signals to indicate graphics on the screen. There are other tools that can be useful in place of or in addition to a screen reader:

  • text-to-speech system:  software that takes written text and speaks it using some kind of speech synthesizer. Text-to-speech systems are useful for the visually impaired, and for situations where users are not able to view the computer screen at all times, such as while driving.
  • auditory feedback:  sounds in response to user activity, such as a click after a keypress, a whoosh accompanying opening and closing windows, or a klunk when a file is deleted. Auditory feedback is useful as redundant reinforcement of activities and for those who are visually impaired.
  • tactile interface:  a user interface that uses touch for input and/or output, such as a Braille reader.
  • screen-enlargement utility:  a system for zooming in on portions of the screen to make it easier for the visually impaired to view information on computer monitors. It is also called a screen magnifier.

Hearing loss and impairments

For the most part, hearing loss does not seem to significantly hinder computer use. With more websites including Flash and audio elements, sound could increasingly become connected with important content and functional elements. Ways to make software or websites accessible to the hearing impaired are to include:

  • visible alerts that accompany any audio alerts.
  • closed captions:  a visual text view of audio in a sound byte or video clip. Closed captions are an excellent provision for the hearing impaired, for non-native speakers who may find written language easier to understand than spoken language, and for people who work in a noisy environment or a work environment where noise would be unacceptable.
  • speech-to-text system:  a type of voice-recognition system which converts spoken language to text. This system is useful for text entry and command entry, especially for the hearing impaired, people whose hands are busy with other tasks, and for people with motor impairments.

Speech impairments

For users with speech impairments or difficulty in spoken language, whether through vocalization or articulation impairments or through neurological language disorders, communication can actually be facilitated with computers.

The field of study examining this is called AAC: Augmentative and Alternative Communication. Aphasias (language disorders) may be aided in a variety of ways depending on the nature of the disorder. In extreme cases, a person with an aphasia may find it impossible to communicate sentences in any amount of time or in any medium, and in those cases, choice systems may help them communicate a limited set of ideas without syntax.

When motor impairments are the source of speech difficulties, assistive devices allow a person to use non-vocal means to specify a phrase and may provide speech synthesis as output. Keyboards may be sufficient devices for some, but when motor impairment is broader, some people may be able to enter single keystrokes only very slowly. A chart-retrieval system allows a person to enter an entire message by selecting it from a set of choices presented in a chart. Letter and message prediction systems anticipate the most likely next letter, word, or phrase that someone will wish to enter and make those easier to access.

Motor impairments

Motor impairments are a loss or limitation of function in muscle control or movement or a limitation in mobility. This may include hands that are too large or small for a keyboard, shakiness, arthritis, paralysis, and limb loss, among other difficulties. The wide variety of aids available include: software such as Sticky Keys that make difficult keystrokes more accessible, voice recognition systems, pointers controlled by mouth or head movements text entry systems to help enter messages with fewer keystrokes. Some of the accessibility aids available to address motor impairments are:

  • head-mounted input devices and eye-tracking systems.
  • mouth-stick:  a device for the physically disabled that enables them to control input through a stick they control with their mouth.
  • blow-suck tube:  an input device for users with limited mobility; a blow-suck tube is placed in the mouth and blown through. It can be used in conjunction with a tongue-activated joystick to move a pointer around and make selections.
  • tongue-activated joystick:  an input device for users with limited mobility; a tongue-activated joystick is placed in the mouth and manipulated with the tongue. It can be used in conjunction with a blow-suck tube to move a pointer around and make selections.
  • chording:  an input mechanism which requires pushing more than one button simultaneously in different patterns to represent different letters or commands. “Chording keyboards” allow rapid entry of letters and words which can allow faster typing than conventional keyboards and permits one-handed operation of keyboards. “Chording mice” are mice with multiple buttons where clicking with more than one button is equivalent to having an additional mouse button. Chording is a powerful tool for some users, but it is more difficult to learn and should never be required of users. In particular, many people with arthritic conditions or other motor impairments may find chording extremely difficult (though note that one-handed operation may be extremely helpful to users without the use of one hand).
  • speech-to-text system:  a type of voice-recognition system; it converts spoken language to text. It is useful for text entry and command entry, especially for people whose hands are busy with other tasks and for people with motor impairments.
  • “Sticky Keys”:  a method of typing where modifier keys, such as Shift, Control, Command, and Alt/Option, will “stick” down and apply to the next keystroke, so that only one key needs to be pressed at a time. This is extremely useful for people who have motor impairments that make it difficult to press combinations of keys. This feature is part of Apple’s EasyAccess system.
  • “Slow Keys”:  a keyboard feature that prevents keystrokes from registering until a key has been held down for a certain period of time. This is extremely useful for people with motor impairments that make it difficult to target keys accurately or that cause unpredictable motion. This feature is part of Apple’s EasyAccess system.
  • scanning:  for the physically disabled, the ability to move through a set of options (usually automatically) and to select one of the options. This enables an interface with only one input: “select now”. With this interface, a user can select objects on a screen, menu items, speech output, or a wide variety of other commands.

Cognitive impairments

Cognitive impairments are any limitations in the ability to think or reason that affect a person’s capacity to perform a task. Cognitive impairments can be congenital or the result of a head injury, stroke, or disease. Head injuries in particular can result in very localized damage, producing highly specific problems. Cognitive impairments, such as attention deficits and dyslexia, are quite common.

Because cognitive impairments span such a wide range of problems, there are really no broad solutions in interface design that help everyone, though general usability recommendations that help reduce cognitive load for everyone will often provide some benefit, in particular: minimize the load on working memory, simplify tasks, organize interfaces to minimize error, and forgive and allow users to undo mistakes. Cognitive impairments are often less observable and well-defined than other types of impairments, so it is helpful to consult a doctor or learning specialist to help clarify the exact nature of the impairment.

  • reminder system:  a system for alerting a user to important items on a schedule, after a timeout, or when a critical event happens. It is used, for instance, in a medical setting to remind clinicians of necessary tests or interventions. These systems are especially useful to people with memory impairments.

Repetitive stress

RSI (Repetitive Stress Injury), also called Cumulative Trauma Disorder (CTD), can result from many activities, such as assembly line work, and interacting with computers is only one manifestation. Repetitive stress injuries can also result from excessive repeated movement with little variation, such as typing and using a mouse. Damage occurs to soft body tissues, such as tendons and nerves.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS), a problem with swelling or inflammation around the median nerve in the wrist, causing pain or numbness, is one of the most commonly known of the RSIs. Poor wrist support and posture during extensive typing is considered a contributing factor. Some ways to prevent it include improved posture, wrist supports, and taking regular breaks to stretch and rest.

  • RSI can be avoided by using a good posture, varying tasks, and taking frequent breaks to stretch and relax.

Color blindness

Color blindness is an inability to distinguish certain color combinations. About 8% of males and 0.5% of females are colorblind in some fashion, so it is common enough to be a highly significant factor in design. Red-green color blindness is most common, followed by yellow-blue color blindness.

To avoid problems for users with color blindness, make sure that color is never the sole way of distinguishing objects. Never expect users to be able to name colors or recognize a color by name. Use differences in brightness to make colored regions distinct, and test your interfaces in grayscale to confirm that they are still usable.

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