How Technology Helps People with Disabilities Use Computers

If you’re reading this paragraph without the assistance of special software or hardware, try closing your eyes or turning off your keyboard for a moment. Without certain software or hardware, using a computer can be a very difficult task for anyone with disabilities. Whether you’re visually or physically impaired, the fact is that using technology can be difficult. What most people take for granted may be a real chore for others.

Combatting difficulties brought on by various disabilities in an environment where software and hardware has become increasingly more complex is a huge challenge for engineers to overcome. Thankfully, both Microsoft and Apple have taken some steps to make sure that users of Windows and OS X with disabilities can at least enjoy basic functionality without requiring assistance from another person.

I decided to have a chat with Kris Napper, a member of the LockerGnome team with SMA (Spinal Muscular Atrophy), a form of Muscular Dystrophy. Even though using a keyboard can be difficult, especially during extended durations, he is able to work and contribute a great deal to LockerGnome thanks to several software applications that make life a little easier. In fact, he’s one of the founders of GeeksRiot, a clothing company that caters to the tastes and styles of geeks.

Windows Software

How Technology Helps People with Disabilities Use Computers“My mobility in my arms is extremely limited, so typing on the keyboard is a big challenge.” Kris said, “I use an on-screen keyboard a lot. All I need to do is hold the mouse and I can type.” He went on to state that both OS X and Windows have on-screen keyboards baked in to the operating system. He noted that he’s quite happy with the Windows on-screen keyboard available through the Ease of Access Center accessible through the Control Panel on Windows 7.

The Ease of Access Center is actually a collection of helpful tools that help users with various disabilities enjoy Windows in a more natural way. A built-in magnifier, text-to-speech narrator, on-screen keyboard, and high contrast are just a few of the various utilities built right in to Windows. You can also use Windows without a display, optimize visual details, replace your keyboard and mouse with speech recognition, make the mouse easier to use, and even optimize the keyboard.

Phill Fernandez, a member of the Gnomies, also takes advantage of several assistive programs in the Windows environment. As a visually-impaired user, he is no stranger to the challenges that face the blind as they attempt to take advantage of technologies that most people take for granted. Like Kris, he also lives in both Windows and OS X.

“Windows is slightly more friendly due to the fact that it has more available third-party software.” He continues, “But the best program I’ve found thus far is ZoomText by ai squared.”

He went on to state that ZoomText makes it easier for visually impaired users to perform most tasks on Windows. Not only can you zoom in by 16x, but you can invert the contrast as well. You can even do black on yellow if you want.

He also recommended JAWS for Windows, which is a powerful screen reading utility. While the entry price is quite high, it can be a lifesaver to blind and visually impaired users who want to enter the workforce and compete for jobs that require a computer.

Kris suggested text-to-speech tool Dragon NaturallySpeaking (as we’ve written about here at LockerGnome before) as a fairly good alternative to the built-in Windows speech recognition utility. Dragon NaturallySpeaking allows you to control Windows and its applications with your voice alone. The program can be trained and attuned to your specific speech patterns and habits.

OS X

Both Phill and Kris use OS X on a regular basis. Phill suggested, “OS X does offer some great advantages including easy magnification, a magnification app that controls scroll, and other useful tools.” Using the built-in command Control+Option+Command+8, you can invert the contrast of the screen instantly, allowing you to see the screen more clearly.

Kris added, “The on-screen keyboard that comes with OS X isn’t as good as the one available in Windows. I found a third-party application called Keystrokes, which is an on-screen keyboard that has a predictive text option. It’s even better than the one on Windows.”

On a related note, Kris recommended the iPhone 4S thanks to Siri. Siri is the iPhone’s built-in voice control software. You can ask it questions, have it send text messages and email for you, and pretty much control the device without having to tap away on the screen. He noted that it does make mistakes here and there, but it’s a step up from the voice recognition capability of Windows’ built-in solution.

Hardware

There are a number of assistive hardware devices out there that can make people’s lives easier.

Phill uses two devices to help him get things done. One of them is called Ruby Handheld by Freedom Scientific. This device is handheld and features a bright screen with sharp contrast that blows up the text as it appears below the device. The device itself is small, lightweight, and a lifesaver for people who need to read things that may be too small or just out of reach to them.

Freedom Scientific also features a product for larger-scale reading called the Onyx. This device allows you to aim a camera at anything you’d like to see larger and displays the image in sharp contrast and vivid clarity on a screen. It’s about the size of a laptop, and can be used to read books and even a whiteboard located across the room. Phill noted that the Onyx is of great assistance during class.

He also noted that Braille displays are a big help to those who can read braille. These thin devices sit in front of your keyboard and convert on-screen text to readable Braille.

What about you? Do you have tips that might help impaired users perform everyday tasks on Windows or OS X systems? Is there a challenge in particular that technology can help you overcome?

Article Written by

Ryan Matthew Pierson has worked as a broadcaster, writer, and producer for media outlets ranging from local radio stations to internationally syndicated programs. His experience includes every aspect of media production. He has over a decade of experience in terrestrial radio, Internet multimedia, and commercial video production.

  • Willie

    I use 2 third party apps on my Macs, USB Overdrive (http://www.senlick.com/) to help with my trackball, and VirtualKeyboard (http://www.corallosoftware.it/) as the onscreen keyboard.  Both are highly configurable, easy to use and inexpensive.

  • Gabe

    Excellent post, guys…

  • Ari

    I use the NVDA screen reader. It’s free and open source, so it’s constantly being updated. It’s for Windows, and is a great alternative to JAWS for the reasons mentioned above..

  • Blake

    Being a Mac and Windows guy, I make heavy use out of JAWS for Windows and VoiceOver for Mac and iOS. The cool thing about VoiceOver is it’s free, and it gives you a pretty complete experience to the Mac. There are demos on the Mac and iOS feature pages if anyone wants to check it out. And since Apple TV has iOS, it also includes VoiceOver. Windows Narrator is well… not good. Another free and open source screen reader for Windows that’s almost as good as JAWS with the right tweaks is NVDA.

  • Cbljazz

    It really depends on your accessibility needs. But as a general principal – apple products are free BUT less flexible.

  • Lee

    Does anyone know if there are any webcams with optical zoom? I’ve tried out a few different cameras for seeing the board in class, but they’re all mostly a pain in the butt to setup (too many cords and they take up too much space). A webcam that could mount to my computer and be powered/connected via USB would be great, but current webcams are too low quality (zooming in would just make the image really pixelated). I googled a little and found that they do exist, but they aren’t very easy to find and it looks like they’re expensive too.

  • Danie van der Merwe

    What about Linux?  It too has Assistance built into the OS and 3rd party software…. it also lowers the cost for those who cannot the more expensive systems.

    • http://grvrulz.wordpress.com/ Gaurav

      I’ve deployed quite a few systems for visually handicapped people using GNU/Linux and I’m also familiar with proprietary counterparts such as JAWS and Windows Eyes, and I must say that the Free(as in freedom) counterparts perform nearly equally, if not better than the proprietary alternatives. These Free software tools like Orca and festival are much better suited to help people with disabilities, especially in developing countries like India where most of the people who need such assistive technology are poor and unable to buy expensive software such as Windows/Jaws and expensive hardware such as an Apple PC.

  • Christopher

    I made a video about this: http://youtu.be/UMS8VlHLTGA 

  • http://chris.pirillo.com/ Chris Pirillo

    I’ll help spread the word, Christopher – that’s one awesome video.

    • Christopher

      Here is the new link: http://youtu.be/RnB9wAv7IyE Thanks! :D

  • https://plus.google.com/112301869379652563135/posts Matt Ryan

    Thank you so much for making this. I’ve added it to the article. You’re an inspiration.

  • http://chris.pirillo.com/ Chris Pirillo

    Thanks – but it’s still unlisted?

    C

    • Christopher

      sorry about that. I’ve made it public now. so here is the new link: http://youtu.be/cSSgndQ5mVs
      thank you

  • Hannafordslilgal2003

    I use the on-screen keyboard for everything even right now; I have SMA and limited use of my arms. I have 2 mice I use the left one mainly to navigate around and the right one to do %95 of clicking otherwise my wrist hurts. I would like someone to hear what I’m saying who has the ability to change/fix the issue; I have 2 computers a desktop and laptop the desktop has windows vista the laptop has windows 7. This is kinda hard to explain but I’ll try my best. In vista the on-screen keyboard if you click but hold the clicker down you get one letter but in Win7 click and hold the mouse button and you’ll get a bunch depends how long you hold the clicker down. That feature should be on Vista keyboard; on Win7 though they made the home, pg up, pg down buttons at the end of the keyboard at all times and I dislike that because I feel like the keyboard is hogging up screen space. Another downer of on-screen keyboard is that they don’t work well for games such as world of warcraft I can use the keyboard to login and communicate but the arrow keys will not make my character move. I have to jump off buildings or crash into trees to make my character fly. The other game I like Perfect World is click to move which is great on Vista with keyboard but on Win7 the keyboard wont let me login or communicate but the arrow keys work! I am begging please please someone fix and combine issue and find the answer!