What is Assistive Technology
What is Assistive Technology?
The Technology-Related Assistance to Individuals with Disabilities Act, or Tech Act, passed in 1988, first specifically described assistive technology devices as “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.”
To put that more simply (and in more modern terminology), assistive technology is anything a person uses to help them interpret, interact with, and understand digital information – whether that be a website, video, app, PDF file, electronic form … or anything else in the digital realm.
Try it yourself
One of the most common assistive technologies, and one that can easily help you understand the uses and importance of them, is a screen reader. Screen readers interpret the text—both displayed and added (in descriptions, etc.)—found in any digital media (website, video, etc.) When screen readers first became readily available in the early ‘90s, they were much simpler tools, and their task was simple as well. This is because the early web, as you may remember, was predominantly a text-based experience. Nowadays that is obviously not the case; forms, photos, graphics, illustrations, videos, and more dominate much of the internet landscape. As a result, screen readers are now required to adapt to and describe an ever-changing internet that includes stylistic elements, colors, layouts, motion, interactivity, and so on.
Here’s where our experiment begins. You can get a better understanding of the function and importance of screen readers for yourself by doing the following:
- Install a screen reader on your computer or your web browser. (For Apple devices, you can simply turn on “Voice Over.”)
- Next, head to one of your favorite webpages – a blog or site you visit frequently, for example.
- Turn on your screen reader software (if not already enabled), and then TURN OFF YOUR MONITOR.
Now navigate the website or page using only your keyboard and the screen reader. Do your best to navigate and do the things you would commonly do on that site – browse articles, watch videos, etc.
For another example, perhaps you have a site that you frequently shop at. Navigate to that page next, then try searching for and ordering a product. Before completing your purchase (or after a couple of attempts), turn on your monitor and see how far you made it through the process.
In either case, there are a number of issues you will likely run into – issues that are common for every user, but which become much more challenging or obvious when using a screen reader. For instance, you’ll probably encounter blank images, links without anchor text, pop-ups that are skipped (even useful ones within the site), and so on. While some of these are merely minor annoyances, you can quickly see where some of them present genuine obstacles for people who are utilizing assistive technology. We discuss more of these types of issues or challenges in our resource entitled “The Impact of Common Accessibility Issues.”
In this experiment, you actually have a bit of a headstart on some users, because we asked you to first start your computer, load your browser, and head to a website you were familiar with, all before activating the screen reader.
Assistive Technology in Summary
So … how does a company ensure that all of their websites, apps, etc. are accessible and compatible with all of the different technologies in use? Fortunately in this case, much of the hard work has been done for you. The Web Content and Accessibility Guidelines are a set of requirements that must be followed by these technology developers in order for them to be compatible and compliant. As a result, your site simply has to adhere to these guidelines. Once it does, it will work with any of the available accessibility tools or technologies currently being used.