Usable Websites, Accessible Websites, Assistive Technology – Where Do I Start?

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The title alone of this post should indicate – these topics aren’t easy to define and narrow. It was a challenge working with my co-presenter, Cindy Leonard, from the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management at Robert Morris University, on our presentation for the Nonprofit Technology Conference titled Usable Websites: How to Keep Visitors Happy and Coming Back for More. We were trying in 90 minutes tie in theories of making usable websites to the principles of accessibility. It was an endeavour that took a lot of creativity and a significant amount of editing of material. In the end, I think we had presented well on usable websites and accessibility standards. What I had questions about afterwards was about assistive technology.

First, I am going to preface this by saying, I’m not an assistive technology expert. I am a techie who has learned to install assistive technology for a computer lab and I try to keep my knowledge up-to-date, but assistive technology is a large category that is probably more convoluted than usability and accessibility of websites. Most of what I do know is how to connect to other resources to provide that helping hand with assistive technology.

The world of assistive technology is broad and it is probably because of the use of the word ‘technology’. One of the best ways I have seen it defined has been by Parents, Let’s Unite for Kids. In their Family Guide to Assistive Technology, they give the definition of assistive technology a whole section. The first paragraph of this section may illustrate my point the best:

Assistive technology devices are mechanical aids which substitute for or enhance the function of some physical or mental ability that is impaired. Assistive technology can be anything homemade, purchased off the shelf, modified, or commercially available which is used to help an individual perform some task of daily living. The term assistive technology encompasses a broad range of devices from “low tech” (e.g., pencil grips, splints, paper stabilizers) to “high tech” (e.g., computers, voice synthesizers, braille readers). These devices include the entire range of supportive tools and equipment from adapted spoons to wheelchairs and computer systems for environmental control.

This isn’t a traditional “tech” issue, which can take all of us who are techie’s for a loop. A challenging loop.

There are a few tips I can offer if you have an issue come up related to assistive technology:

  1. Know that you don’t have to be the expert and find an expert. – Individuals who are assistive technology experts have been in school and in the field for years. They have different kinds of knowledge and even among these experts there are specialities. Some are really good with wheelchairs, others are experts on communication devices, and others are the people to talk to about home adaptations. Be flexible and try to connect with the right expert. Use the Universities and Colleges around you for resources. I am abundantly lucky that in Pittsburgh there are great resources for me to connect with: The Center for Assistive Technology and Human Engineering Research Labs
  2. Look up vendors and ask them questions. – Again, my location helps me because Pittsburgh has been an emerging center for technology and especially assistive technology. We are lucky enough to have corporate headquarters of Dynavox on the South Side of town and MinSpeak just outside of downtown. Sometimes the vendors are the best people to ask for answers.
  3. Be prepared for freeware to have some of the best answers for you. – When doing a computer lab with assistive technology you may find out quickly that you run into license issues that can get very expensive and you can find out that sometimes some assistive technology devices actually don’t want to be on the same computer as other assistive technology devices. It can be frustrating. It brings back the old adage of “try, try, and try again” to mind immediately. But there are lots of freeware solutions out there, one of my favorites being Virtual Magnifying Glass.
  4. Keep it simple.  – Believe it or not, sometimes the solution is already in the operating system, although that is not where we naturally think is our starting point. If you are a Microsoft user you should visit their Microsoft Accessibility website. There are a lot of features that are built into Microsoft that work so much better than previous editions of Microsoft operating systems. There is no reason to start searching for other software or other imput devices until you have tried out what you already have.
  5. You aren’t alone. – There are plenty of people who are like me – we have stumbled across some information about assistive technology, but we aren’t experts at all. However, we may have ideas for others. Just ask and see if your circle of contacts has anything to help you out. Tweet about and see if you get a response. It might just shock you.
  6. It will change. – When it comes to the computing side of assistive technology, clearly we all should realize it will change just as often as a new version of the iPhone is deployed or as often as new Operating Systems are released. It will keep things interesting.
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