Web Accessibility 101: Assistive Technologies

It’s no great revelation that many people use Internet Explorer to comb the web, while others prefer Firefox or Safari. Some are giving Chrome a go, and a small percentage hop around cyberspace through Opera. Those of us in the web design and development world use all of the above (or at least should!)

I remember, back in my college days when the Internet was first making its foothold, I used the text-only browser Lynx to putter around, mostly because I had problems getting Mosaic to work on my Mac and 2400 modem.

As I began researching web accessibility, I was surprised to read that people still use Lynx.

Sure, there are people restricted by low bandwidth Internet access who would sooner get to where they are going than endure painfully long load times.  But Lynx by its nature has an attribute that makes it particularly appealing to people with certain disabilities — because it strips down a webpage to its most basic, GUI-less state, and can be completely navigable by keyboard. For someone with physical limitations that affect the motor skills necessary to navigate with a mouse, strict keyboard navigation is much easier.

Some other assistive technologies that aid the disabled in their web surfing:

JAWS™ screen reader
JAWS is long-standing software that enables the visually impaired to navigate Windows more easily. It uses text-to-speech technology and also interacts with refreshable Braille displays (to be discussed in a moment). Working over the top of Windows, it begins its speech capabilities upon startup. A user navigates using keyboard commands and shortcuts. This extends to Internet Explorer as well, reading aloud what is displayed through the code of the web page.

Naturally, as we’ll talk about at length in future posts, how accessible a site is determines how well programs like JAWS present its material to blind visitors.

Like a lot of assistive technologies, JAWS is not inexpensive. It runs $900 and up. Another option in roughly the same price range is Windows-Eyes.

Built right into Apple’s OS X since 10.4, VoiceOver allows users to navigate about their Mac using keyboard commands and voice. It works with Braille displays and boasts being very intuitive for users of Windows-Eyes and JAWS who are switching to Mac. 

Refreshable Braille Displays
Some blind computer users prefer to use speech technology to navigate, while others opt for Braille. Refreshable Braille displays, in layman’s terms, raise dots to form the Braille that enables the visually impaired to read whatever the screen reader is capturing. As an example, Freedom Scientific offers 40-cell and 80-cell displays. Their devices are quite expensive in their own right, roughly $4000 and up. The ALVA Refreshable Braille display is another example.

Screen Magnifiers
Built in to Windows, Mac OS X, and several flavors of Linux is “magnifying glass” type of technology, to enable those who are visually impaired by limited sight to zoom in on whatever they want on their computer screen, including web browsers.

There are certainly other assistive technologies that will crop up in future posts. These are but a sampling. Feel free to pass along others worth mentioning in the meantime. As I continue along with my Web Accessibility 101 series, I hope to better flesh out the user experience that various disabilities create. 

Web accessibility — specifically, how designers and developers build out their sites — make such assistive technology’s jobs easy or very difficult.

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