It is estimated that between 750 million and one billion people globally have a vision, speech, hearing, mobility or cognitive disability (1). Even an extremely conservative estimate of how many of these people have access to computers indicates that there are millions of potential users who are hindered by their disabilities. For example, there are approximately 2 million people in the US alone who have severe communication disorders such that they need to use assistive technology to communicate (2).
As the computer age continues, more and more technology is being created to make computers and the internet accessible for people of all ability levels. For visually impaired users, programs offer audio description or screen reading, while monitor settings can be modified to make visual reading easier or Braille embossers can be added as alternative output devices. For individuals with hearing difficulties, captioning and visual notifications instead of sound can offer more freedom in using a computer. Adaptive keyboards and mice have existed for years to allow people with motor disabilities to get input to a computer, while speech recognition is an emerging type of software that allows control of a computer by voice. For those with cognitive disabilities, programs can be set up to read text aloud while it is displayed.
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Yet, while new products continually open up the world of computing to the disabled, there is still a long way to go before technology is completely accessible. There are still significant financial, cultural, knowledge and physical barriers that prevent many of the world’s disabled from having access to the wealth of information available through computing. For example, a study of people over the age of 15 in the US found that while 51% of normally sighted people used a computer on a regular basis, only 13% of those with some type of sight limitation fit into the same category. While 57% of sighted individuals had access to the internet, only 21% of partially sighted people had this same access (3). It is our goal to describe the state of accessible technology today, discuss its benefits and limitations, and explore what the future holds for people with disabilities.