Assistive technology (or AT for short) is any tech that turns a difficult or impossible situation into an empowering one. This is especially true for those with disabilities. The best AT provides such a quality ‘equivalent experience’ you forget they are there. In fact, if you’re wearing glasses right now, you’ve got assistive technology.
However, the web needs more than a pair of glasses. People need to be able to understand what they are interacting with and take action on it. And the legal requirements and adherence to standards provides predictable code for the diverse range of assistive technologies to help you understand the web.
Categories of tools
If you’ve heard of accessibility, you’re likely aware of this category. There are many products available for people that are blind or have low vision. Products like Freedom Scientific’s JAWS (Windows), NVDA (Windows), Orca (Linux), MacOS Voiceover and iOS Voiceover, Android’s Talkback, Chrome’s Screen Reader (formerly ChromeVox), Windows Narrator, and digital braille keyboards (iOS, Android) are commonly targeted toward blind users. This set of tools are typically referred to as ‘screen readers’. Other tools targeted to those with low vision are are Freedom Scientific’s ZoomText (Windows), Windows Magnifier, and a slew of other system settings and apps. As for hardware, Braille keyboards or Freedom Scientific’s intriguing products are also available.
Another category of accessible tech is for those with mobility issues. Some of the users of this technology are those with paralysis, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, cerebral palsy, or even those with broken or missing pointer inputs (no mouse or touch screen). Most of this AT falls into the hardware realm, such as a Switch device, sip and puff technology. Those with arthritis or carpal tunnel issues may inputs such a pen tablets, and lots of different variations on keyboards and mice. One person even rigged a touchpad to a tripod to navigate her machine with her nose! There are software solutions as well, such as eye tracking and dictation software. The most well known is Dragon Naturally Speaking, which has spawned many digital assistants.
Most of the web is purely visual, so there are less web accessibility tools for the deaf or hard of hearing. Web standards have native support for Web Video Text Tracks (WebVTT) in video. Creators mark the VTT file as subtitles (dialogue only), captions (dialogue & other critical non-verbal information such as music or sounds), description (textual description of dialogue, music & sound, and scene information). Also AI programs are creating captions on the fly, but the quality is still poor. As for hardware, there are some really unique devices that help people “feel” sound.
The final category of AT targets people with cognitive disabilities. The only tech I’m aware of is Read & Write which reads back selected content aloud so a user doesn’t have to read it themselves. Some OSes provide narration also, but they’ve already been covered. And the final types of cognitive AT are ‘readability’ modes provided by many modern browsers and some sites. These readability modes sometimes include more legible fonts such as OpenDyslexic or Lexend, however use of these fonts is pretty limited at the moment. I hope this changes, as members of my family with dyslexia find OpenDyslexic helpful. I’ve recently asked Android to include it as a stock font option, but the more people that ask, the more likely they will consider it.
Common AT combinations
When a website or app is evaluated, a specific Assistive Technology and modern browser pair to be selected for testing. These asks come from a popular WebAIM survey released each year that highlights AT trends and from UK.gov, which has specific recommendations on which combos to test with. Here are the most common you’ll likely be asked to test, in order of importance (from my experience).
- JAWS (latest version); Windows 10; Internet Explorer 11 or Microsoft Edge (Chromium)
- Dragon Naturally Speaking; Windows 10; Chrome (However, steer clear from Edge Chromium for now…)
- iOS; Voiceover; Safari
- NVDA; Windows 10; Chrome (or a Chromium Browser)
A few gotchas here to note.
- Not every assistive technology works with every browser. You can see this in my previous article on AT support. For example, Firefox does not work AT ALL with MacOS Voiceover. Dragon Naturally Speaking 15 is severely limited in Edge (Chromium).
- Every AT and browser combo returns varied results. (Again, see my previous article)
- MacOS Voiceover and iOS Voiceover do not read back the same way, they are separate technologies with the same name.
Since everything does read back differently, its more important to provide a better experience on the most common AT instead of trying to make a uniform experience. Confirm with your stakeholders and users first before going down that route.
Obviously, there is a huge diversity of tooling and technology combinations out there. In our next session, we’ll be going over some simple commands you can use right now to navigate with an assistive technology yourself. See you soon!