Disabilities and the Web

People interact with the web in many different ways. This is especially true for those with disabilities, who often need modes of interaction that do not rely upon vision, hearing, or the ability to use a mouse. Considering multiple modes of interaction when designing web resources is a path to universal design, which makes the web more usable for everyone.

Audiences with various accessibility needs will utilize specialized tools to help them interact with software and their computers. These tools are called Assistive Technology or AT and come in a wide variety. AT operates best when used with code-compliant, standards-based programs.

Some Common Assistive Technologies (AT)

  • Screen Reading (SR) technologies - JAWS, NVDA, and VoiceOver are common screen reading programs that operate on a platform level. They allow the user to interact with the system regardless of what program is running. These programs also provide enhanced functionality for interaction with things like webpages. By using ARIA and best practices in HTML, web designers can facilitate and augment the user experience for users of these technologies.
  • Text-To-Speech (TTS) - Although this technology shares a similar output as SR technologies, there are significant differences. Most TTS software operates in a closed system, or in other words, TTS only functions as an enhancement to a specific software product, such as ChromeVox. For this reason, TTS doesn't typically react to accessibility best practices for things like websites. Screen reading software is platform specific and operates as a part of the system, not a particular software product. TTS software is a useful tool for learning disabilities because it offers another venue for absorbing and retaining information.
  • Braille Displays - Although expensive (~$6000-$8000+), Braille devices provide an enhanced mode of communicating with the interface to trained users. Such devices allow the user to interpret the code and interact with elements of the design that are not available otherwise.
  • Sip and Puff Straws - This type of assistive technology allows mobility-impaired users to activate keyboard-focusable elements on the screen or other tasks, such as controlling their powered wheelchairs.
  • Speech Recognition - This technology allows users to interact with their device via voice-command. This assistive technology is particularly helpful for those who have difficulty typing. Dragon by Nuance is a popular program in this category.