Technologies for the 'differently able'

Posted by Hitarth Jani | 7:43 PM | 0 comments »

Technology is acting as an enabler for people who have physical disabilities or disorders such as dyslexia or autism. There is a wide range of hardware and software that assists the disabled to use computers for communication, productivity, and learning. Here’s a look at some of these assistive technologies.

Input devices
Joysticks and other pointing devices, along with large-key keyboards make the task of data input easier.
For those with limited dexterity, that is, those who have trouble operating a mouse, roller balls of different sizes are used to enable pointing and clicking. Joysticks with buttons also serve the same purpose. There are USB switches and switch accessories of different types for this too. For instance, there are round switches in different sizes, or switches connected to arms and can be operated by bending the arm, or switches that can be mounted, and switches that require very little pressure for operating. Depending on which muscles a person can use easily, one of these programmable switches can be selected to give various commands to the computer or to control input devices.
Head mice and eye trackers are types of pointing devices that use a person’s head and eye movements respectively. Head mice track a reflective dot on a person’s head, while eye trackers or gaze trackers do this via eye movements. These are useful for people who have limited or no use of their hands, or are paralyzed shoulder downwards.
People with motor control problems can use large-sized keyboards. Similarly, people who have joint pains in their hands and fingers or low muscle strength can make use of keyboard guards to help press the keys without exerting too much pressure. Compact keyboards are also available, which can be mounted on wheelchair trays.
Touch screens and tablet PCs are also useful for people with impairments. In addition, wands and sticks are used to press keys on the keyboard. These can be controlled by strapping them to the head, chin or holding them in the mouth.
Enabling software
Text to speech software, voice-recognition software, screen readers, predictive text entry software and screen magnifiers are some of the solutions that are very helpful for people with visual or hearing impairments, learning disabilities, musculoskeletal disorders, spinal injuries, or carpal tunnel syndrome.
JAWS for Windows
The software called JAWS has been around for a while, and is of great assistance to the visually impaired. It uses synthesized speech to read out what’s written on your screen. It can be used to browse the Web, work with Word documents and use other programs. JAWS can be customized to specific needs; it can also provide Braille output along with speech.
Another screen reader is TextHelp Screen Reader 4. An add-on called WordTalk, which works with Microsoft Word 97 and later versions, reads out the text in Microsoft Word documents. These are useful for the visually impaired or those who have learning disabilities.

Dragon Naturally Speaking
With this voice-recognition software, you can control the computer using your voice. You can send e-mail with attachments, browse Web pages, work with documents, and so on. It is useful for those who have limited use of their hands.
This software enables typing text into a computer, which the computer converts to speech to aid communication. All this is done through the use of a single button. This software, therefore, is useful if you can’t enter text or if you have speech problems.
Dasher can be used by people who have limited or no use of their hands. It enables predictive text entry by using devices such as roller balls, joysticks, touch screens and mice. Foot mice, head mice, and eye trackers can also be used with Dasher if you cannot use your hands at all. It can be used to enter text in most languages. It is available for Windows and for other operating systems under the GNU General Public License.
Other Literacy Related Software
Software related to literacy include screen readers, screen magnifiers, software that enables word completion or predictive text entry, and may include add-ons such as dictionaries, calculators and spell checkers. These are helpful for people with visual impairments, dyslexia, delayed learning, or those who have poor motor skills. Many of these are also available as shareware.
This software is useful for people who have hearing impairments. It can convert speech to text; it can also convert speech or text to video sign-language or computer generated voice in real time. Once the speech is in text form, you can use resources such as the Internet or the built-in Dictionary and Thesaurus to find out more about it. When someone is speaking to you, their speech can be converted into video sign language in real time; and you can type in your response, which will converted to computer-generated voice.
Microsoft Windows and Office Accessibility Features
In the Control Panel of Windows, a feature called Accessibility Options enables you to set options for screen magnifiers, on-screen keyboards, and so on.
Various versions of Office also have several accessibility features that enable people with disabilities to work with them. You can find out more about these at the Microsoft site. A useful page is, which provides links to other resources on accessibility and assistive technologies.