I started writing this article without much knowledge of what a software could do for somebody with disabilities. I had in mind a couple o regular problems and solutions I know exist: Screen magnifiers and text-to-speech programs. But after reading several articles, like this one, from W3C: How People with Disabilities Use the Web, I realize we don't really know much about disabilities and the problems they have to work with a computer.
The first thing I discover is that there are, obviously, many kind of disabilities that can affect our relationship with the computer. There are more than sight or hearing impairment, and there are a lot and interesting tools to help people with these problems.
There are many disabilities, and degrees of them. To undrestand how they work with a computer, or what they need to do with them is the first step to be able to help.
Visual Disabilities: The visual disabilities are more than just blindness, there are different levels of low vision and even color blindness that can be a problem.
Hearing Impairments: Although today there most of the web is visual with a lot of text and images, some times there are several instances that the sound is used. From a Skype conversation to be able to see a Youtube video, to simple sound cues like alarms in different softwares.
Physical disabilities: From tremors that won't let you use the mouse to problems with your hands or the ability to use them (lack of coordination, paralysis) and even missing limbs.
Speech disabilities: For software and webpages that relay on speech recognition.
Cognitive and neurological disabilities: This may vary in degrees, from dyslexia to mental health disorders, there are several, deficit disorders or intellectual disabilities.
Aging-Related Conditions: Problems like loss of vision, dexterity or memory can be a problem facing the computer. And like that multiple disabilities can add up challenges to overcome.
Software to help with disabilities
There are three areas where the software is being developed to help people with disability (I'm not talking about hardware or specific equipment). In general software will be cheaper than a specific equipment and can vary a lot according to what is needed.
This is a system wide applications that come with the computer, different systems have they own set of tools to help people with disabilities and most of the times it comes bundled with the operative system.
Mac OS X: Universal Access.
This is the set of rules you can find in the preferences menu. Here you have four sets of tools to give assistance on
Seeing: Here you can access to the VoiceOver Utility that will tell you where are you exactly, the name of the applications and the actions. You also have a zoom option to zoom the whole screen into a specific place. And finally Display: to change the contrast, transform the colors to grayscale or completely change the screen to Withe on Black.
Hearing: Here you only have two options: to flash the screen when an alert occurs and to play the stereo clips as mono.
Keyboard: Into the keyboard options it can help you to treat sequences of keys as key combinations for people with difficulties pressing more than one key at a time, or for repeated keystrokes treated as a single one.
Mouse: In the mouse option it can help you to use the computer only with the keyboard, increase the size of the mouse and to control the pointer movement.
Windows: Ease the access.
Windows has a really interesting option besides some of the same applications you can find in Mac. This is a questionary that will recommend some settings for the computer. The set of questions will ask you about the kind of impairment or difficulties you have to use the computer, questions related to most of the categories we discussed before. The options are simple but may be very useful.
Ubuntu: Assistive Technologies
Ubuntu has also a interesting list of technologies to help people with disabilities. Orca is a free, open source, flexible, extensible, and powerful assistive technology for people with visual impairments. The keyboard and mouse also can be modify to help the user with different kind of settings. In Ubuntu there is only a basic preinstalled tools such Orca and onBoard, but there are many more to install for free. In Ubuntu you have a community working in the problem with a lot of advices, and even a Linux distribution for the Visually Impaired called: Vinux
There are two kind of software for accessibility assistance. First software specific for people with disabilities, those can be text-to-speech software or speech-to-text. Gestures for mouse, voice syntethizers and a long list. You can find here a long List of Software for people with disabilities.
The other one is regular software that can be modify (or that has preinstalled options) to help people with disabilities. The different browsers are a good example of this.
Firefox there is an interesting list of ad-dons and settings to make Firefox Accessible.
In Chrome there is a study of how accessible is Chrome with no very good results. But anyway, in Chrome Extensions you can find a specific category for this (that category is absent in Firefox Addons)
While the Operative System and different software are tools that will help the user navigate in their own computer, there are millions of webpages out there where those people can feel lost if the pages are not following some accessibility rules. For this there are several guidelines to help the creators of webpages, here I bring some of those I find important:
CSS: Cascading Style Sheets is the presentation semantics that will help to format the document. But this also is a valuable tool for people with disabilities to be able to transform the webpage in something accessible using their own CSS. So, in order a webpage can be truly accessible, it has to give the user the chance to adapt it and transform it as they want. This means to be able to control the colors, font sizes, backgrounds and contrast between elements
Alternative Text: Not all the computer can show an image, some times a program will be reading the content of a page. A image or a button without a description or alternative text will be problematic for the user.
Full keyboard support: A lot of webpages ask for a click in a button or an area, the use of a keyboard instead of a mouse, or at least the option to use both, could be important for a lot of people.
Headers, titles and labels: To organize all the information in a webpage with titles for each section, frame, table or column can help a lot to be able to navigate on a site.
Moving texts: A text that moves, or any image that moves, could be distracting or it can go too fast for the user. Is important to give the option to stop the movement or change the speed.
Consistence: To have a consistent navigation mechanisms and styles across pages will help people with learning disabilities to understand better the web.
But besides all this accessibility options, the creator of a webpage has to have in mind all the possible visitors and give options for the users to navigate around his site. There are also a long list of tools for developers of Accessibility Evaluation of their websites. For example, check the analysis for Softcity.
Computers are more important everyday, and people can't avoid to use them, even people with difficulties and disabilities they need to use them everyday. This is way there are so many projects, software, institutions and groups working together to bring accessibility to the web and computers. But at the end, the users with serious accessibility issues will need somebody that can help them to set up a system for them. To know the programs, the options and the different challenges they have is important not only for people with disabilities but for everybody, from the developer to the regular user that wants to help they grand mother to connect to the web.
But if there are many programs and systems to help people get connected and work in a computer, these same devices can help them a great deal. Smartphones are one of the most important tools for people with disabilities. There are many interesting apps, and experiences, but may be this could be material for a next article.
Did you have any kind of experience with this kind of technology? Did you help somebody to use it, or use it yourself?