What is Assistive Technology and What are its Types?

Assistive technology

People who have difficulties using a computer mouse, keyboard, or monitor rely on assistive technologies (AT) to help them browse the internet and consume content in the digital world. While assistive technology is a broad term that combines devices like hearing aids and wheelchairs, today, we will talk about the devices and software that can replace certain computing devices.

What is Assistive Technology (AT)?

Assistive technologies make it easier for people with disabilities to access the content. It is any software, equipment, or device used by a disabled person to live their life with more independence. Great examples of the most-used assistive technologies are screen readers, closed captioning, text readers, monitor tracking, screen magnifiers, and Braille displays. However, these are only visual technologies. Depending on the person’s disability, different types of assistive technology exist.

What are the Types of Assistive Technology?

From store-bought technological solutions like speech recognition software to custom-made prosthetic hands, everything that helps a person perform even a basic task comes under types of assistive technology.

Let’s explore all the types of AT we have today and how they are categorized in different sections of accessibility:

  1. Vision
    Visually impaired people take the help of the following assistive technologies to make their daily lives more accessible:
    • Braille displays
    • Screen readers
    • Text-to-speech
    • Phones with large tactile buttons
    • Talking devices
    • Large print materials
    • Text magnifiers
  2. Hearing
    People with a hard time hearing can use assistive technology to make their daily activities easier. Some of the examples include:
    • Vibrating alarm clocks
    • Doorbell with flashing lights
    • Closed captioning system
    • Face-to-face dual keyboard
    • Amplified telephones
    • Personal amplified system
    • Texting or specialized apps on mobile devices
    • Wireless listening system in TVs
  3. Speech Communication
    Individuals with speech difficulties use the help of speech communication tools to function in their daily lives. Examples of the tools include:
    • Speech output software
    • Speech generating devices
    • Voice amplification systems
    • Artificial larynx
    • Fluency assistance devices
    • Communication boards
    • Symbol-making software
  4. Learning, Developmental and Cognition
    Some people need assistance memorizing, learning, organizing, and being attentive. They use the following AT:
    • Audiobooks
    • Reminder systems
    • Mobile devices with special apps
    • Notetaking system
    • Memory aids
    • Text-to-speech system for learning

Vision-related Types of Assistive Technology

In the United States, approximately 2.4% of the adult population has some form of visual disability that ranges from partial visual impairment to complete blindness. Here are some of the most common assistive technologies that people with visual disabilities use:

  1. Text Readers
    People who have difficulty reading text use text readers as an assistant. This software functions by reading text with the help of a synthesized voice, including a highlighter to pick out words spoken aloud. However, this technology can only read the text and nothing else, not even items on web links, menus, or web pages.
  2. Speech Input Software
    People who have difficulty typing use this technology as an alternative to input text and navigate their computers. Some applications like Google Now, Cortana, or Siri allow users to activate a menu or click a link using only their voice.
  3. Head Pointers
    Users who cannot use their hands may use a head pointer, a stick mounted directly on the user’s head and pushes keyboard keys. However, this is not ideal for some functions that require a mouse without keyboard navigation.
  4. Screen Magnification Software
    Screen magnification software work in different ways. Some allow users to control the size of their screens, while others have a separate zoom function that allows magnification of a certain part of the screen as if the user is using a magnifying glass. Some screen magnification software works with screen reading technologies for low vision users who can only identify graphs, charts, images, or visual information.
  5. Screen Readers
    Visually impaired or completely blind people use screen readers to assist them in reading content aloud from the screen. These technologies use digital tags to express the information displayed on the screen. This information includes text, alt text for images, links, menus, and buttons. Some screen reading assistive technologies like NVDA or JAWS users can use. Apart from them, there are built-in screen readers like TalkBack for Android, VoiceOver for iPhone and Mac, and ChromeVox for Google Chrome.
  6. Refreshable Braille Displays
    A refreshable braille display uses your device’s Bluetooth or other connective devices to allow users to comprehend information from their screens. They work by converting text into Braille through electronically activated pins. So, the Braille user should be able to read the pins with their fingers like they would on paper.

Hearing-Related Types of Assistive Technology

To consume digital content like video or audio, most people with hearing difficulties take the help of closed captions or transcripts. In fact, according to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1, you need to add these text-based assistants compulsorily in multimedia content. However, there are still people who do not comply with the requirements. When this happens, you can use automatic transcription software that allows the conversion of audio into text. YouTube has this facility where you can turn on the automated caption option if there are no added captions.

Speech-Related Types of Assistive Technology

People who struggle with speech or are non-verbal can use speech-related assistive technologies to communicate with people effectively. Some Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) systems like gestures, signs, or electronic tools like picture boards help them communicate. ACC includes voice output communication aids (VOCAs), also known as speech-generating devices (SGDs). They help people with speech difficulties to communicate by using synthesized speech.

Learning, Cognition and Developmental-Related Types of Assistive Technology

People with traumatic brain injury, learning disabilities, memory loss, and attention limitations use assistive technologies like audiobooks, notetaking devices, voice recognition for writing, devices for scheduling, and text-to-speech software.

Achieve Accessibility Through Assistive Technology

Understanding the different types of assistive technologies makes it easier for everyone to acknowledge the importance of making content, especially digital content, accessible for everyone. These technologies help bridge the gaps of inaccessibility, allowing people with disabilities to consume the same type of content everyone else can! And as our intake of digital content like PDFs has increased over the years, it has become necessary to keep accessibility on top of our minds.

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