Intelligent Tools


Choosing Assistive Technology That Fits

Traxsys Roller Plus

Traxsys Roller Plus

Save that… Go to sleep. That’s the sound of Jeanne McLaws of London, Ont., saying goodnight to her laptop computer. McLaws, who has fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis, uses speech recognition software and a headset microphone to turn her words into computer commands and text on the screen. It greatly reduces the amount of typing I have to do, and I can talk faster than I can type! she laughs.

Assistive technology is a general term used to describe products and equipment that help people with disabilities work, play and communicate more effectively. Dragon Naturally Speaking, the program that McLaws uses, is just one of the many software and hardware tools created to give access to mainstream computer technology and the ability to perform the same computer activities that individuals without disabilities can.

Most assistive technology for computers is designed to compensate for two problems: difficulty seeing or reading from a computer monitor, and the inability to use a standard computer keyboard or mouse. Our aging population, the rise in repetitive strain injuries (sometimes caused by improper computer use), equal access legislation in the United States, and the integration of people with disabilities into employment and education have greatly increased the number of products available. The type of assistive technology required depends on the disability or disabilities a person has. Let’s look at some of the options.

People with vision disabilities use three kinds of computer programs: screen magnification, screen reading, and optical character recognition (OCR) software.

Screen magnification software is used by those who have enough vision to see a computer screen when the text size is magnified or the contrast and colours are changed. Some of these programs also offer verbal output. The basic features are easy to use and don’t require much training. The biggest drawback of screen magnification is that the more the screen is magnified, the smaller the area that can be viewed becomes. The most popular programs are ZoomText ($700) and MAGic ($500).

Jaws screen reading software

Screen reading software is used by people who don’t have enough vision to see a computer monitor, even when the screen contents are magnified. These programs work by speaking text and menus aloud. Computers with screen readers are controlled using the keyboard alone, so users must touch type accurately and memorize commands. Though this technology has dramatically improved the ability of people who are blind to benefit from computers, it is far from perfect. Programs and websites that are highly visual or do not comply with accessible design standards may not work with screen readers. The most widely used program today is JAWS ($1,000).

Optical character recognition (OCR) programs
turn printed pages into electronic text that can be listened to, edited or printed in Braille. OCR software, which also requires the use of a scanner, is easy to use once you learn some basic commands. Two popular programs with comparable features are Kurzweil 1000 and Open-Book. Each cost around $1,300.

Some versions of Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office software also contain basic built-in accessibility features. Windows 98, for example, allows you to change text and mouse pointer size and colour and alter the repeat rate and sensitivity of the keyboard. Windows XP offers these features as well as a built-in magnifier, a screen reader and an onscreen keyboard. Microsoft Office 2002 (also known as Office XP) and higher versions have speech recognition built in. These are not as sophisticated as the programs mentioned earlier, but may be sufficient for many users.

Individuals with learning disabilities face similar challenges to those with vision disabilities they cannot fully utilize output from a computer screen. As the number of people, especially students, diagnosed with learning disabilities increases, the assistive technology choices for this group are also growing. They now include scan and read software similar to OCR programs, but with enhanced features, such as built-in dictionaries and programs designed to assist with organizing thoughts, taking tests and improving reading and writing skills. Kurzweil 3000 ($1,400), Texthelp Read & Write ($700), WYNN ($1,300) and Word ($200) are just four of the many programs available.

Because there are so many types and degrees of physical disability that can affect a person’s ability to use a regular keyboard and mouse, there are also a large number of hardware and software alternatives.

Mice, trackballs and joysticks now come in many shapes and sizes, including mice that can be operated by head or foot. There are also numerous keyboard options. Dvorak is a type of keyboard layout that places all the vowels on the left side and the other letters and some of the punctuation in different positions from the standard QWERTY layout. Supporters say it is faster and easier to learn and increases typing speed, and suggest it is easier for a one-handed typist to use. You can buy a Dvorak keyboard, and Microsoft Windows has the Dvorak keyboard layout as a built-in option. Other keyboard styles include left-handed and one-handed layouts, and larger, smaller and ergonomically shaped keyboards. A few of the companies that manufacture specialty keyboards and mice are Traxsys, Kensington, IntelliKeys and Bigkeys.

For people with disabilities that affect their arms and hands, speech recognition software is often useful. It allows the user to control menus and dictate text using a microphone. These programs can provide fast and accurate input, and may mean the difference between whether a person is able to use a computer or not. However, you must invest time in learning and practising commands and training the software to work with your voice. The present speech recognition industry leader is Dragon Naturally Speaking ($300 with USB microphone).


Whatever your disability, you want to get the most out of the assistive technology tool you choose. Educating yourself about the technology and what hardware and software is available will ensure that you get what you need to make the most of your computer. Here are some tips to help you choose appropriate assistive technology.

The right tool for the job: Frederick Stam, owner of Intelligent Access Microware in London, Ont., has been selling and servicing assistive technology for 25 years. He says that before people buy any assistive technology, they should think about what they want to do with it and then investigate the options to see if it is possible. A major reason people are disappointed is that they haven’t chosen the right tool for the job.

Be an informed consumer: Stam also says, Quite often, the person who will be using the assistive technology is not consulted. School boards, government agencies and insurance companies frequently choose for people, and decisions are sometimes made based on marketing or convenience, not real knowledge of the product or the person who will be using it.

This often happens because people with disabilities haven’t educated themselves and aren’t making their voices heard. You can avoid this frustrating situation and empower yourself by learning all you can about your disability and what assistive technology is available, then sharing your thoughts and participating actively in the choices that are made on your behalf.

Realistic expectations: You don’t become suddenly employable or magically a top student because you have access to a computer, says Richard Quan of Toronto, who is blind and has been using screen reading software for a long time. Assistive technology doesn’t make a disability disappear. It simply provides an alternative way of accessing mainstream computer programs.

Jeanne McLaws, who teaches other people with disabilities how to use computer programs and assistive software at Accommodations Training and Networking (ATN), agrees. The technology helps a lot of people do things they otherwise wouldn’t be able to, but they have to be realistic about it. The people who use assistive technology most successfully are the ones who understand what it can and cannot do, and have worked hard to learn to use it properly.

Some programs are easier to use than others. Screen magnifiers require little training for basic use. However, speech recognition programs need intensive training in the early stages as users learn to control programs and enter and edit text.

System requirements: Before you buy any assistive technology, read the system requirements, which tell you what hardware and software a product needs to function.

Mice and keyboards need certain operating systems and hardware connections, screen readers won’t talk without sound cards, speech recognition programs require microphones, and OCR and scan-and-read software don’t work without scanners. System requirements are marked on packaging or available on product websites. Make a list of questions for the salesperson or manufacturer before buying.

Version check: A software release is usually a number at the end of the program name, like Windows 98 or Read & Write 8. Like regular software, assistive technology is upgraded as improvements are made, though some programs upgrade more frequently than others. Most assistive technology companies also sell different versions of the same software release. For example, Dragon Naturally Speaking Preferred ($200) is the most common version of this software, while the Professional edition has more features, but also costs significantly more ($1,000).

Kurzweil Educational Systems also sells two versions of its popular software. One is for blind users and the other is for people with learning disabilities. Be sure that you are getting the correct release and version because there is often a significant price difference, and once assistive technology is purchased, it usually cannot be returned.

Buyer beware: The assistive technology market is highly competitive and the products are expensive and two reasons why you should learn all you can before deciding on an assistive technology tool. Though it is best to try something before you buy it, this is not always possible with specialized keyboards and mice. Visit product websites and talk to users. Many companies offer trial versions of software that you can download free and use for a limited time. Often they don’t have all the features of the purchased program, but this is a very good way to see if you like a product before buying it.

If you comparison shop, you’ll find very different prices for what appears to be the same thing. Reasons for this might be that the price is listed in American dollars, or the products are not exactly the same. The lowest price is not always the wisest choice.

Be careful when shopping online. Most products originate in the United States. If you purchase from an American website, you’ll not only have the exchange rate added to the price, but also shipping and duty, and you’ll have less chance of receiving support if anything goes wrong.

Luise O’Neill of Lake Pleasant, N.S., a speech recognition user and retired assistive technology instructor, offers the following words of cautious optimism about her own experiences with assistive technology: It can be empowering and offers exciting possibilities, but at the same time be frustrating. It is rarely faster or more convenient than mainstream computer applications. When wisely chosen and properly used, it opens whole new worlds of opportunities for people with disabilities and has turned can’t into can for many, many people.

Avril Rinn is a freelance writer who lives in London, Ont. She is a regular contributor to Abilities.


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