Assistive technology: choice never greater

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Friday, 3 October 2014 15:16pm

Despite an often slow and mixed development history, the choice and availability of assistive technology to help people with disabilities access PCs and other computing devices has never been greater.

That’s the message delivered today to attendees of the VisAbility Technology Outlook conference in Perth, Western Australia by Media Access Australia’s resident accessibility expert, Dr Scott Hollier.

Dr Hollier said that assistive technology had had a long history with hardware-based text-to-speech technology being showcased in 1981, and SAM (Software Automatic Mouth) being released in 1982 for early personal computers from Atari, Apple and the Commodore 64.

However, the stability of these early assistive technologies, along with their high cost had been barriers to people with disabilities. But with the 1998 introduction of Section 508 into the US’s Rehabilitation Act of 1973—which requires all information communications technology (ICT) products sold to the government needed to meet accessibility criteria, and that government websites had to be made accessible to work with assistive technology—things significantly improved.

“Section 508 was a big catalyst for getting computers, devices and the web to incorporate accessibility,” Dr Hollier said. “From there, assistive technology became more stable and widespread. A turning point was Microsoft putting its Narrator screen reader into Windows 2000, which in a way created the underpinnings for having accessibility features included in mainstream technology.”

Dr Hollier said that assistive technology had also kept pace with both the decrease in the cost of consumer technologies and in the breadth of consumer applications.

“Today, you have so much choice,” he said. “If you want a fantastic, high-end screen reader you can buy JAWS, or if you want a mainstream device that is accessible you can buy an iPhone or iPad. If cost is a barrier, then you still have access to sub-$100 Android tablets or the zero-cost NVDA screen reader.”

Looking to the future, Dr Hollier said he expected an increase in the affordability and availability of assistive technology, in particular, in the cloud—an area Dr Hollier has recently researched with The accessibility of cloud computing - current and future trends white paper.

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