Assistive Technology (AT) is technology that is used by persons with disabilities to promote greater independence by enabling them to perform tasks that might otherwise be difficult or impossible. AT can include mobility devices such as walkers and wheelchairs, as well as hardware, software, and peripherals that assist people with disabilities in accessing computers or other information technologies.
For example, people with limited hand function may use a keyboard with large keys or a special mouse to operate a computer, people who are blind may use software that reads text on the screen in a computer-generated voice, people with low vision may use software that enlarges screen content, people who are deaf may use a TTY (text telephone), or people with speech impairments may use a device that speaks out loud as they enter text via a keyboard.
For people with hearing impairments assistive listening devices (ALDs) help amplify the sounds you want to hear, especially where there’s a lot of background noise. ALDs can be used with a hearing aid or cochlear implant to help a wearer hear certain sounds better. Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices help people with communication disorders to express themselves. These devices can range from a simple picture board to a computer program that synthesizes speech from text. Alerting devices connect to a doorbell, telephone, or alarm that emits a loud sound or blinking light to let someone with hearing loss know that an event is taking place.
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Screen readers are designed to give visually impaired people access to information on a computer, tablet device or a mobile phone by reading the information using a synthetic voice. A screen reader does much more than just read text, it will allow you to navigate around your computer using speech.
For example, it can tell you:
What page or file you are in.
What icons are on the screen.
What webpage you are on.
Whether a link in the web page has been visited.
Whether a tick box is checked or unchecked.
If some text is underlined.
Examples of screen readers for computers:
Jaws, Dolphin, NVDA
Examples of screen readers for mobile devices:
Talkback (Android), VoiceOver (Apple)
A screen magnifier is software designed for people with low vision and can magnify everything on a computer or mobile phone screen. This results in only part of the original screen image being visible, but a magnifier can follow the mouse pointer or cursor on a computer or a finger on a touch screen device.
A screen magnifier can be a useful addition or alternative to a larger screen and large font. Computer screen magnifiers will usually include extra features such as the ability to change screen colours, enhance mouse pointers or cursors, and sometimes include reading features and basic screen reading functions.
The majority of smart phones and tablets also include built in screen magnification settings with options to change colours, contrast, etc.
Examples of screen magnifiers for computers:
ZoomText, Dolphin SuperNova Magnifier
For Braille users, there are several different types of devices that are available that utilise tactile technology:
Braille displays and notetakers
Braille embossers and other tactile printers
For any person with a physical or communication disability, augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) technology is proving life-changing for those who use it.
The simplest AAC device is a picture board or touch screen that uses pictures or symbols of typical items and activities that make up a person’s daily life. For example, a person might touch the image of a glass to ask for a drink. Many picture boards can be customized and expanded based on a person’s age, education, occupation, and interests.
Keyboards, touch screens, and sometimes a person’s limited speech may be used to communicate desired words. Some devices employ a text display. The display panel typically faces outward so that two people can exchange information while facing each other. Spelling and word prediction software can make it faster and easier to enter information.
Speech-generating devices go one step further by translating words or pictures into speech. Some models allow users to choose from several different voices, such as male or female, child or adult, and even some regional accents. Some devices employ a vocabulary of prerecorded words while others have an unlimited vocabulary, synthesizing speech as words are typed in. Software programs that convert personal computers into speaking devices are also available.
Reading tools and programs for learning disabilities include software designed to make text-based materials more accessible for people who have difficulty with reading or typing. Options can include scanning, reformatting, navigating, or speaking text out loud.
Some examples are:
Dragon Naturally Speaking (speech-to-text software)
The above programs are helpful for: 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.
Several types of assistive listening devices (ALDs) are available to improve sound transmission for people with hearing loss. Some are designed for large facilities such as classrooms and theaters and other types are intended for personal use in small settings and for one-on-one conversations. All can be used with or without hearing aids or a cochlear implant. ALD systems for large facilities include hearing loop systems, frequency-modulated (FM) systems, and infrared systems.
Hearing loop (or induction loop) systems use electromagnetic energy to transmit sound. A hearing loop system involves four parts: a sound source, such as a public address system, microphone, or telephone; an amplifier; a thin loop of wire that encircles a room; and a receiver worn in the ears or as a headset. Amplified sound travels through the loop and creates an electromagnetic field that is picked up directly by a hearing loop receiver or a telecoil, a miniature wireless receiver that is built into many hearing aids and cochlear implants. Because the sound is picked up directly by the receiver, the sound is much clearer without the competing background noise associated with many environments. Some loop systems are portable, making it possible for people with hearing loss to improve their listening environments during their daily activities.
FM systems use radio signals to transmit amplified sounds. They are often used in classrooms, where the instructor wears a small microphone connected to a transmitter and the student wears the receiver, which is tuned to a specific frequency, or channel. People who have a telecoil inside their hearing aid or cochlear implant may also wear a wire around the neck (called a neckloop) or behind their aid or implant (called a silhouette inductor) to pick up the signal.
Infrared systems use infrared light to transmit sound. A transmitter converts sound into a light signal and beams it to a receiver that is worn by a listener. As with FM systems, people whose hearing aids or cochlear implants have a telecoil may also wear a neckloop or silhouette inductor to pick up the signal through their telecoil. Unlike induction loop or FM systems, the infrared signal cannot pass through walls, making it particularly useful in rooms where confidential information is discussed.
Personal amplifiers are useful in places where the above systems are unavailable or when watching TV, being outdoors, or traveling in a car. About the size of a cell phone, these devices increase sound levels and reduce background noise for a listener. As with other ALDs, the amplified sound can be picked up by a receiver that the listener is wearing.
Real-time captioning support for Deaf and hard of hearing students involves a captioner who would use a computer with specialised software to transcribe spoken word into text. This text is streamed to another device (computer/tablet/smartphone/tv) which is viewed by the deaf person. This system is popular in many institutions worldwide and serves as a viable alternative to Sign Language.