In today's world, technology plays a significant role in our lives, making various tasks easier and more accessible. However, for people with diverse abilities and needs, using technology might present challenges. This is where assistive technology steps in, serving as a bridge to help people with diverse needs navigate and interact with the digital world more easily. It can also benefit people in all aspects of their lives, providing solutions that enhance usability and accessibility.
So, what exactly is assistive technology?
Assistive technology refers to a broad range of devices, tools, software, or equipment designed to assist people in performing tasks that might otherwise be challenging. Its primary aim is to enhance their independence, productivity, and overall quality of life.
'The normality of being able to do tasks that the average person does is just such a huge thing. The separation between disability and ability is shrinking every day, and that's massively huge and the development that's caused that has literally changed our lives.'
- Accessibility NSW research participant
Let’s delve into some common types of assistive technology:
- Screen readers: These are software applications that convert digital text into synthesised speech or braille output, enabling a person who is blind or has low vision to access and navigate digital content. Popular screen readers include JAWS, NVDA, and VoiceOver.
- Screen magnification software: For those with visual conditions who have difficulty seeing small text or images on screens, screen magnification software enlarges content, making it more readable and accessible.
- Alternative keyboards and mice: These assistive tools cater to people with physical needs, situational or long-term, that affect their ability to use standard keyboards or mice. They include ergonomic keyboards, keyguards, trackballs, and switches, allowing users to input commands more comfortably.
- Speech recognition software: This technology converts spoken words into text, aiding a person with mobility conditions or those who have difficulty typing. It's also widely adopted by people on the move or involved in hands-on tasks, as well as by anyone looking for a convenient and efficient way to input text. Popular examples include Dragon NaturallySpeaking and Google's Voice Typing.
- Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices: AAC devices support people with additional speech or communication needs. These range from simple picture communication boards to complex computer-based systems with synthesised speech.
- Text-to-speech tools: These tools convert written text into spoken words, facilitating comprehension for those with learning difficulties such as dyslexia, or other conditions affecting reading abilities.
- Braille displays and refreshable braille devices: These devices provide tactile feedback by converting digital text into braille, allowing a person who is blind or has low vision to read content displayed on a screen.
- Closed captioning and subtitling: Primarily aiding people who are deaf or hard of hearing, closed captioning and subtitling provide text-based descriptions of audio content in videos or broadcasts. Closed captioning has also gained popularity among individuals who want to follow content without disturbing their surroundings.
- Environmental control systems (ECS): ECS enables people with a physical disability to control home appliances, lights, and other devices through specialised interfaces or voice commands.
The beauty of assistive technology lies in its adaptability. These tools are not one-size-fits-all; they are customisable and can be tailored to meet specific needs. What's more, as technology evolves, so does assistive technology, continuously introducing new innovations and advancements to improve accessibility.
The importance of assistive technology cannot be overstated. It empowers people with diverse abilities and needs to participate more actively in work, education, social interactions, and other aspects of daily life that many take for granted.
But embracing assistive technology goes beyond mere compliance; it's about promoting inclusivity and ensuring that our digital products and services are accessible for people using assistive technology. This way, we prevent assistive technology from becoming an additional obstacle and ensure that everyone can participate equally online, regardless of the situation.
‘When I have full access to things and all the assistive technology is available at my fingertips and working, it's a pretty wonderful thing. It feels like I'm on a level playing field with everyone else around me.’
- Accessibility NSW research participant
If you think assistive technology could enhance your experience, connect with your People and Culture team or IT Support for assistance. For those engaged in building products or services, prioritising compatibility with assistive technology is crucial. Refer to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) for detailed information on creating inclusive designs.
If you encounter challenges accessing NSW Government websites or applications, including documents, videos, and audio files, it is important to report the issue. Your feedback is crucial in identifying and rectifying accessibility problems.