I’m blind, so I get a lot of questions about my day-to-day usage of assistive technology. Over the years I’ve learned that there are a lot of misconceptions about people with disabilities and our use of technology. Many of these questions have come up often enough that I believe they need to be more widely discussed. Dispelling the myths around accessibility is the best way to help people understand it.
To begin with, let’s get a few things straight. People with disabilities don’t always have a “helper” to assist with daily tasks. While it is true that many people with disabilities are not employed and need assistance that is not the case for everyone. We still have the same hopes and dreams as everyone else. For us, access to information is critical to being able to participate in education and work towards a career. As long as accessibility practices are followed, we can attain that access via assistive technology.
Now let’s take a look at some myths about accessibility.
First, let’s talk about screen reading technology. Screen reading software doesn’t “read everything to us”. A screen reader is a piece of software that utilizes a synthesized voice to read aloud text on a screen. As long as the material is produced to be accessible, a screen reader can read our email, browse a website, write a document, and everything in between. If there is text inside an image or if there is a lot of animation in a visual element, a screen reader will have difficulty decoding that information, if it is even able to do so at all. A screen reader can read descriptions of photos, provided certain coding has been added to a page.
Not all visually impaired people use screen readers. Some people use different tools that need to be considered when addressing accessibility. Depending on their needs, many use magnification software, which can make an image larger, brighter, darker, or have different contrast.
Keyboard shortcuts are another major player in accessibility technology. Many people with disabilities do not use a mouse or touchpad. For those with visual or motor challenges, keyboard shortcuts or gestures on touch screens are more convenient. While these are important tools for those with disabilities, they are incredible useful for others as well, which is one of the reason that key commands are commonly built into programs and web pages every day.
The most important lesson is this: don’t’ underestimate what can be accomplished with assistive technology. While many people may think that certain disabilities may keep that person from accessing technology, accessibility is always a possibility. From captions to audio descriptions, from devices that let a user control a computer with their eyes, voice, or even breath, assistive devices are as diverse and imaginative as the people who use them.
Today accessibility is not just a legal requirement, but an economic one. Including accessibility practices widens a product’s target audience to more people, and gives those users a better experience. This is a vital aspect of user satisfaction for countless individuals. Greater access to digital content is possible, and will open the doors to learning, enjoyment, and satisfaction for all involved.