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Moving Towards More Simple Assistive Technology Systems

ATHEN E-Journal Issue #3 (2007)

Paul Blenkhorn
Professor of Assistive Technology
School of Informatics
University of Manchester


For many people assistive technologies provide significant help for users in accessing standard applications. For some people, e.g. blind people, access would be impossible without such support. However, as assistive technologies have developed over the years and have become more and more sophisticated there is a danger that they themselves can start to become an obstacle to access for many users. Although the systems still support “accessibility” they become less “usable”. This paper outlines this potential problem and presents some possible ways forward.


accessibility, assistive technology, usability

Assistive Technology for "Print Impaired" people

In this presentation Assistive Technology is taken to mean software systems that enable a person who is having some difficulties with accessing their computer. Here the focus is with print impairments, i.e. blind and visually impaired and sighted people who have difficulties with print, e.g. dyslexic.

For Blind and Visually Impaired People

This group has difficulty seeing the information on the computer's screen. To help they use screenreaders and magnifiers. Examples of screenreaders include JAWS, Window-Eyes, Supernova, and Thunder. Magnification systems include Zoomtext, Magic and Lightning. There are also systems that both magnify and speak. Users typically cannot access the computer without their assistive technology therefore the technology is used all the time.

For sighted people who have difficulty reading and writing

This group includes dyslexic people, those for whom English is not their first language, and more broadly people who are illiterate for a variety of reasons. Some access may be possible without assistive technology, but tools for organising and structuring information can help (some) users as can tools that vocalise information on the screen.

Current problems

The main problem I wish to focus on here is the gradual increase in complexity of Assistive Technology systems.

Feature “creep”

Originally assistive technologies were developed for basic access to some fairly straightforward applications for a significant proportion of the (often very able) target population (using technology). However, as that population became more sophisticated it demanded access to more applications. In addition more users would come on board with slightly different needs. The assistive technologies then become increasingly feature rich until they may be too complex for the intended users, and can be particularly difficult for new users.

"Assistive Technologies" which are really business tools

Quite rightly we have made use of existing business tools that can significantly help our users. However, the interface (dialog box), menus, etc. may be rather complex either in layout or structure. Finding an option in a deep hierarchy or a button amongst a great deal of text and graphics can be hard.

Here I use the spell checker dialog from Microsoft Word to illustrate a fairly complex dialog that may be difficult for some users. However, I could equally have used dialogs from some optical character recognition (OCR) systems, or deeply nested dialog boxes or menus, etc.

The way forward?

The way forward is not clear however here are some ideas:

  • Keep considering users, especially those who are not "the most able". We need to consider the functional needs of users in a given environment. We all know that we should focus on the individual and not the disability. We need to be wary of giving AT by rote to a person's label rather than to the actual person, e.g. not all dyslexic people can work effectively using a specialised concept mapping program.
  • New software and new technologies. As our understanding of users’ needs increases and as technological capabilities increase we can explore new ways of supporting individuals. The danger of not being carried away by the technology needs to be remembered!
  • Provide a collection of smaller, more focused applications rather than "bloatware". Rather than users being given one application that provides many solutions, maybe we can provide several smaller applications. Of course, this can cause difficulties if the applications have different interfaces and can be disastrous if they do not co-exist. This is often the case with Assistive Technologies from different manufacturers.
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of the technology that is being used and replace it if it is not effective


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