My 10/07/07 Missoulian column: Assistive Technology:
Computers can be accessible for disabled
Technology should be accessible to all of us, and while access isn’t yet universal, many people with disabilities can reap the benefits of using computers that most of us take for granted. While we’re all familiar with wheelchair ramps, automatic doors and Braille signs, assistance is just as important for navigating today’s technologically dense world, which at times can be more difficult to traverse than the physical world.
Assistive technology might not be very interesting to someone who isn’t disabled, but it is good to know about; you might have a friend or family member who could use it or someday be in need of it yourself. There are some amazing technologies available for people with disabilities: head-mounted mouse control systems, where you can move a pointer on a display by moving your head pointing your eye; Braille displays and printers that show text with “screens” that can be felt; captioning for video players; text-to-speech programs; voice-recognition software; and home-automation systems that are run by a computer.
Looking at the big picture, there are two broad levels of assistive technologies for computers: one at the operating system level and one at the program level. They seem to overlap a bit, but operating system technology helps you use the whole computer, while and program-level technologies include things like controls for Web browsers and word processors.
Both Microsoft and Apple offer assisted access at the operating system level, so what you need might already be installed on your desktop or laptop computer. If you use Linux, there are lots of assistive technologies, depending on which version you have.
Apple always has been a leader when it comes to accessibility in its operating systems. Beginning in 1985, the company introduced system tools for display zooming, magnifying parts of the screen and using keyboard commands for system controls. Now, Apple has an extensive offering of assistive technologies. Find out more at Apple Assistive Technologies
Any version of Apple’s OS X has a Universal Access control panel, where you can set display zooming and contrast, and reverse the display to white on black. Sticky Keys will “hold” a key down while you press others, and Slow Keys delays the action of keys, if needed. You can make the mouse cursor larger and slow it down, too.
One feature of the 2004 release of OS X – called Tiger – is VoiceOver, a built-in screen reader that provides verbal descriptions of what’s on the screen, whether its a word processing document, a Web page or a window. Used in conjunction with text-to-speech software, users with verbal or aural disabilities can have almost complete control of a Macintosh.
The Windows XP operating system is accessible, too, but its features weren’t built in until 2001, which is surprising in retrospect as the company at that point held the vast majority of the computer market. For more information, go to Windows XP features ; also check the Microsoft product resource guide.
Windows XP’s Accessibility Options control panel allows you to set up sticky keys, key delays and sounds similar to Apple’s. With the Speech control panel, you can use text-to-speech software to have documents read to you. In the Mouse control panel, you can set the pointer size, speed and pointer trails. You can use Narrator accessory to receive verbal prompts that lead you through the computer’s controls. There’s also an on-screen keyboard accessory, so you can type with mouse clicks or the pointer instead of using the keyboard.
At the program level, you can make text larger in your word processor either by zooming in on the window or changing the size of the type, and Web browsers force an increase in type size for sites that favor design over readability.
Most word processors have zooming capabilities independent of the operating system. Appleworks and the newer Pages programs for Macs can zoom in on pages using a control at the bottom of the document window. In Microsoft Office for Macs, Word has a zoom button on the toolbar. In Microsoft Office 2007 for Windows, Word has a slider control in the bottom righthand corner of the window for zooming in. If it’s not there, right click in the same spot to bring up the status bar and click the zoom check box to add it.
All Web browsers have font size controls that can be used with keyboard commands. In Firefox and Internet Explorer 7 for Windows, hold down the Control key and type a “+” to go up or a “-” to go down. On Firefox and Safari for Macs, hold down the Apple key and type a “+” to go up and a “-” to go down. (Ideally, all Web sites should all have text size controls, too, so you don’t have to change the size on your browser.)
Beyond the common programs we all use are applications such as voice recognition software; I’ve used it and can see how it could be indispensable to someone who can’t use a keyboard and mouse. The best, from my experience and product reviews, is Dragon’s NaturallySpeaking. Unfortunately, it’s not available to OS X yet. (The Windows XP version can be used on Macs with virtualization software.)
NaturallySpeaking works amazingly well. It takes some time for the software to learn to recognize your speech patterns, but after it is set up you can speak into a headset microphone and watch the text appear in your word processor. You can even add punctuation by voice.
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, so it’s a good time to learn about assistive technology.
Check out the University of Montana’s Rural Institute MonTECH Programs. The institute is the state’s comprehensive resource center for assistive technology information and training.
Another Web site to check out is the National Public Website on Assistive Technology.
And, of course, there are many resources available via Google.