What is Assistive Technology?

Assistive technology or adaptive technology (AT) is an umbrella term that includes assistive, adaptive, and rehabilitative devices for people with disabilities and also includes the process used in selecting, locating, and using them. AT promotes greater independence by enabling people to perform tasks that they were formerly unable to accomplish, or had great difficulty accomplishing, by providing enhancements to, or changing methods of interacting with, the technology needed to accomplish such tasks. Wikipedia

In the context of this discussion, we’re specifically referring to hardware or software devices that provide assistance to users with disabilities when using ICT products and services. Typically when people think of assistive technology they often think of screen readers or screen magnifiers, though there are a wide array of assistive technologies in use. On the web, assistive technologies are employed by users to help them in navigating, interacting with, and understanding content and features.

One of the common misconceptions people tend to have about assistive technologies is that assistive technologies can “make things accessible”. The assumption in such cases seems based on an incomplete understanding of how assistive technologies work – specifically the belief that features like all of the special keystrokes available for JAWS users to access certain types of content will somehow bridge the gaps in a system’s accessibility. The reality is that assistive technology types, features, and quality can vary quite significantly. Even in the best case scenario, assistive technologies can only render information to the user that is available from the system. In other words, if a page has a form on it, the ability of the assistive technology to provide information to the user about the controls in the form is dependent upon the form containing proper markup to convey that information. For instance, if form controls don’t have labels then what is an assistive technology going to do, invent one? In some cases that’s exactly what happens. JAWS will “guess” at form controls for text inputs, with limited success. This guessing about things like missing labels is rare in assistive technologies as a whole and is not consistent enough or reliable enough to count on it overcoming deficiencies in the system. The only way to ensure a system works properly with assistive technologies is to build the system right. In a web context, that means providing the most appropriate markup for the content and properly conveying structure, relationships and proper name, state, role, and values for controls. In other words, assistive technologies require proper web development in order for the user to truly be successful in using a system. This is exactly the opposite of what seems to drive the sentiment that assistive technologies can make things accessible. Assistive technologies can not make a system accessible.

The Rise of Pseudo-Assistive Technologies

Recently there have been discussions surrounding what I call “pseudo-assistive technologies”. For reference, I’m speaking specifically of products like ReadSpeaker, eSSENTIAL Accessibility, and BrowseAloud. In the strictest semantic interpretation, one could argue that they’re still assistive technologies with the primary difference being that they are offered on a per site basis and provide text-to-speech functionality to read the site’s content aloud. These products are actually not new and some of them are nearly a decade old. Despite this, the criticisms levied against such products are the same today as they were almost a decade ago. The problem I have, personally, with such products is twofold: first is what they’re capable of doing and the second is how they are marketed.

On a technical level these products essentially all work the same: They read the content of the page via text-to-speech. Though the features of each product differ slightly, the end result is the same: text becomes read aloud. The value you place upon the text-to-speech capability I guess depends upon your perspective. I will concede that there may be instances where this is useful. For example, I sometimes turn on ReadAloud on long PDF documents. To this end, these products are potentially useful for people with reading disorders or attention disorders. But here’s the thing: People who require text-to-speech in order to gain access to content will need it on all websites and, indeed, on all software applications they use, not just their browser. This is important to understand: These per-site text-to-speech services are, at best, a mere convenience for persons who prefer to hear the content – not a legitimate assistance for those who need  to hear the content. This takes me to my second concern.

Deceptive Marketing

The technical limitations of these products are, in my opinion, not enough to warrant the rather severe negative reaction they often receive. To be honest, there are a lot of products out there – even assistive technologies – which don’t really do much or at least don’t do it well. If this were the only issue I had with these products, it would hardly warrant a blog post, especially when others have covered the issue well already. What I take issue with is the highly deceptive marketing of these products. Try these quotes on for size (emphases mine) which come directly from the materials on these vendors’ sites:

“Effectively, it ensure that anyone with a physical disability can easily access any website that carries this mark.” (eSSENTIAL Accessibility)

“eSSENTIAL Accessibility allows any user to overcome any physical limitation to access a web site.” (eSSENTIAL Accessibility user’s guide)

“Instituto de Mayores y Servicios Sociales (Imserso) and 22 of its websites integrate ReadSpeaker’s industry-leading online text-to-speech service to provide better web accessibility to its users.” (ReadSpeaker)

These claims are demonstrably false for the exact reasons I specified earlier in this post. On March 12, 2012, Denis Boudreau performed an audit (PDF) on a site which uses eSSENTIAL accessibility. Here are a few of the things he found:

  • Missing, incomplete, or uninformative alt attributes for images, including actionable items
  • Missing label elements for form fields
  • Poor color contrast
  • Poor keyboard accessibility and focus control

All of these items can present significant and, in some cases, insurmountable accessibility barriers for persons with disabilities regardless of what assistive technology is used.  To put it more succinctly: Not one of these issues can be addressed by software which merely reads text aloud.  Interactive features on these pages are inoperable by users with disabilities.  Even worse: The ReadSpeaker widget is, itself, inaccessible. In other words, the net outlook on accessibility for a site that carries this product is that the site becomes less accessible for featuring the item, not better.

Why this is bad for accessibility

Having a product that doesn’t do much is one thing. Claiming that it can do things that it can’t is something different altogether. These things are like the penis enlargement pills of accessibility. Some customers are so desperate and ignorant that they are almost eager to be duped. Just a little over a month ago, the Co-operators (the site Denis Boudreau assessed, by the way) issued a press release that proudly pronounced: The Co-operators website now more accessible merely by featuring a link to eSSENTIAL accessibility. Another press release issued just yesterday by the Ontario Medical Association says Almost one in five Canadians are living with disability. The OMA recognizes the importance of serving this demographic properly. But the really amazing one is this: Miratel Solutions Expands Their CSR Business Initiatives with Launch of Fully Accessible Website Clearly, these are organizations who have been led to believe that these services can remediate existing accessibility problems on their website. That is bad for accessibility. It is bad for users who need an accessible site because these products give organizations a false sense of security and the belief that they’ve done what it takes to serve people with disabilities.

There is only one place where accessibility happens: The code.  This goes for any assistive technology.  If the markup is used improperly, if the proper controls aren’t used in the proper ways, if the client-side scripting doesn’t manage focus properly and if the controls aren’t discoverable and actionable by keyboard, no assistive technology product, service, or device will matter.  The code is where accessibility happens and so long as companies’ budgets are being diverted to ineffective products, these budget dollars are not being used on things that matter, like training developers and remediating their sites.