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Chapter 1: Introduction to Assistive Technology

What is assistive technology?

Why is AT important, and what opportunities does it create?

What are the limitations of AT?

1.1 What is assistive technology?

The term “assistive technology” has been used extensively in recent years. This does not mean, however, that assistive technology itself did not exist prior to the term’s widespread use. For ages, magnifying glasses were used in cases where a small print had to be read or a more thorough investigation of an object had to be made. Magnifying glasses enabled people to see what they otherwise were not able to see, and therefore belong to the category of assistive technology, a technology that “assisted” them in seeing something.

Nowadays the world is dominated by various technological devices, ranging from technology that enables people to fly in outer space, to machines designed for industry, to technology designed for use in the home and office. Examples of the latter include such devices as telephones, pagers, fax machines, printers, scanners, and computers, which have become indispensable to business people and to the population at large. Assistive technology, in the modern sense of the term, includes various devices or software programs that enable people to use modern-day devices that could not be used otherwise, or at least with any degree of efficiency. Blind people can easily use a telephone, for example, by dialing a number and then talking. Computers present a greater challenge. If the user cannot read the computer screen to access information, he is at a distinct disadvantage to his sighted peers.

It is interesting that various definitions of assistive technology reference the fact that this technology is specifically designed for disabled people. While it is true that disabled assistive technology users profit from it most, (since for them it is a required element for efficient use of the computer), non-disabled technology users could benefit from this assistive technology as well. Older people, or people who have minor visual problems and are not considered disabled, can benefit from the use of magnifying glasses or more advanced devices called CCTVs or video magnifiers, discussed in a greater detail in Chapter Two. Similarly, while it is true that computer users without the use of their hands greatly benefit from voice recognition software which allows them to dictate, rather than type, the text, the same software is now widely used by lawyers and doctors who wish to expedite the process so that they can allocate more time to their clients or patients. They can dictate notes directly to their computers in the same way that “disabled” users record or read a text.

A broader definition of assistive technology - the one we think is more appropriate - is as follows: assistive technology, often abbreviated to AT, allows people to perform various tasks which are impossible or more difficult to accomplish without it. Since this book is specifically designed for instructors of people who are blind or visually impaired, the discussed assistive technology will focus on the needs of those people. It is important to keep in mind, however, that assistive technology serves much broader needs than those of blind/vision impaired people. We will discuss specific types of assistive technology for this particular group of people in Chapter Two.

1.2 Why is assistive technology important, and what opportunities does it create?

The advantages of using assistive technology by blind/vision impaired people are numerous and indisputable. Integration into the workforce or classroom is the most important advantage, so here we take a closer look at the implications of this life-changing technology.

Over the past few decades, integration into the workforce or classroom has been a major achievement for people who are blind/vision impaired. For centuries, these individuals were - and still are in many parts of the world - doomed to perform certain jobs, whether or not they had an interest or a particular inclination towards such work. Common jobs have included massage therapist, musician (singing and/or playing instruments), and various kinds of crafters (broom makers, basket makers, etc.) While people who did not have to rely on assistive technology to do their job had a variety of job opportunities to choose from, blind/vision impaired people were, until recently, “stuck” with the stereotypical jobs that they have been known to do for centuries. Assistive technology developed in recent years has enabled them to break the stereotypes and to work, along with their sighted colleagues, in a number of disciplines ranging from law and government administration to education to more technical fields such as computer programming. In all of these fields, as well as in many others, use of a computer is, to a greater or lesser degree, fundamental. Assistive technologies have allowed blind/vision impaired people to use computers and therefore perform the same tasks as their sighted colleagues.

Blind/vision impaired students can use the computer to type homework or to do internet research, and thus compete successfully with their sighted peers. For example, a student can now buy a “regular” printed book, scan it to the computer, and have the assistive technology - a software that either reads or magnifies the text on a computer screen - read the book or magnify it to a degree that is appropriate for the individual user.

It would be a mistake, however, to believe that assistive technology provides work opportunities in all fields and endeavors. There is no assistive technology that would help blind surgeons, blind hairstylists, blind architects, or blind graphic/fashion designers perform their duties adequately. There is no doubt, though, that job opportunities have been largely expanded. It is quite possible for blind people to succeed as lawyers, businessmen, computer programmers, teachers, and a variety of other professions. In Chapter Two we will look closely at specific examples of the ways in which assistive technology helps integrate blind/vision impaired people into the work or school environment.

1.3 What are the limitations of assistive technology?

The most important limitation of assistive technology is that most of it requires training, if the technology is to be used efficiently. The magnifying glass is a kind of assistive technology that is simple to use; its sole function is to magnify whatever is placed underneath its lens. Today’s assistive technology, however, is far more complicated; while it is possible to use modern assistive technology without extensive training, this practice may not yield a very good outcome. When a screen reading program is started and the user actually begins to hear spoken words, there is no assurance that he will benefit a great deal from the program. He must first learn various ways of getting the information from the screen in order to work quickly and efficiently. Similarly, users who know how to load the software that magnifies the text on a computer screen will not benefit from that act unless they know how to move around the screen in a quick and effective manner. What I want to stress here is the importance of training, because without it, assistive technology may prove to be a frustration or even a hindrance to the user’s progress.

Another important limitation of assistive technology is that it does not work without flaws in various computer applications. It often works smoothly, without major obstacles, in various Microsoft applications and an increasing number of other programs. However, there remain several programs which, even with the aid of assistive technology, cannot be used efficiently. I do not want to discourage people from using assistive technology; rather, I want to alert them to the fact that, unfortunately, some programs will not adapt to it. There is always hope that this situation will be resolved with future technological advancements, when more people become aware of the promising benefits of assistive technology.

Chapter 2: Various Assistive Technologies

Chapter 3: Basic Principles and Ergonomics

Chapter 4: Teaching People Who are Blind or Low Vision

Chapter 5: How do Blind/Vision Impaired Users Benefit from the internet

Chapter 6: Accessible Web Design

Chapter 7: Overbrook Resources

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