As this month is Assistive Technology month, I have thought about a lot of the little things that help people live independent lives and participate in all aspects of education, work, and the life of the community. In a perfect world, everyone would have access to the assistive technology they need to go to school, succeed in their career, and access any services they may need. Few of us pay much attention to this assistive technology, even if we see it every day. Some of the most helpful and effective tools are simple, and we might not even notice them.
One of the simplest assistive technology devices is really quite brilliant. It is also becoming more overlooked as architects and builders are now including them in their initial designs. While some will need the extra assistance of an elevator, for many, the ramp allows them to skip the stairs without needing to ask for help. I first realized how simple yet important ramps are when I was skiing with a friend who is in a wheelchair (but by far the best skier I personally know). We went to dinner one evening when we approached a restaurant and there wasn’t a ramp and instead 3 or 4 steps. It hit me hard that because of these 3 or 4 steps that my friend wouldn’t be able to eat at this restaurant. As we do, we shook it off and proceeded to have a memorable night with friends but this has stayed with me almost 20 years later.
You might not even notice you have them on. Some may turn these captions off, while others may enjoy leaving them on so they can keep the volume down. But for some people, close captioning allows those with hearing loss or language learners to enjoy movies and television shows and stay informed with access to local news and weather.
Modern businesses are working to keep their websites up to date with the latest best practices for accessibility. The choice of fonts, colors, layouts, text spacing, and other elements can significantly impact the accessibility of the site to people with low vision looking at a monitor or those with no vision listening to a screen reader. One assistive technology you may not even notice is the alt-text on website images. If the code inserting the image is correct, there will be an assigned alternate text. You might see it if you hover over an image. That is there so that someone listening can have a description of the image they can’t see.
The use of fonts and colors is also commonly overlooked but has a huge impact on accessibility. In my first years as an eighth-grade English teacher, I had 2 students with visual impairments and was grateful to have a co-teacher who helped me learn how to make their texts and my presentations accessible. As simple as using dark color backgrounds with lighter text and san-serif fonts allows people with dysgraphia or dyslexia to more easily recognize the letters and makes a huge difference and to others without these impairments, often do not recognize a difference.
Software, Apps, & Extensions
When I first started teaching we used specialized machines like Dynavox that were expensive and often had a single purpose. In more modern times, computers and iPads provide assistance in so many ways. Dynavox and others like it are an app. I have been a fan of Apple’s Accessibility mission and still find the iPad to be one of the best learning and accessibility tools. There are many videos out there that show how visually impaired people use their iPhones; Kristy is one of the recent ones I’ve seen.
Speech-to-Text and Text-to-Speech are also changing the way we communicate. I’m still a strong believer that we need to learn and teach typing in schools but why not also teach students how to verbalize their thoughts and capture it?
I’ve never been a fast reader and I’ve always longed to be a “speed reader.” When I learned and tried Spritz for the first time I was shocked that it did help me read and comprehend better than traditional reading.
Simple, Overlooked, and Critical
There is no way to overstress the importance of these and other assistive technologies in our world. While we might not even notice them, many people count on them to live, learn, and work independently. If we pay attention, we may begin to see these and others and how they make our world more accessible for more people.