Since its earliest days, the Internet has been a great equalizer for disabled individuals. People who would not otherwise have the opportunity to communicate, do research, and contribute their own knowledge and opinions have been able to do all these things with the Internet. But disabled people don't necessarily access the Internet the same way non-disabled people do - there is a wide variety of assistive technology available for disabled computer users.

Many people do not know how a blind person uses a computer. Everything is on a monitor, so how can a sightless person use it? They have never heard of the devices and programs that enable many visually impaired people to use a computer and access the Internet. One such device is a screen reader, although it is typically a software solution. A form of text-to-speech technology, the screen reader enables users to listen to text that is displayed on their screen, and identify and use navigational elements such as scroll bars or the "Back" button. The parent of modern screen readers was the Kurzweil reader, invented by Ray Kurzweil, who also invented optical character recognition (OCR). This device was frequently used in libraries and schools, where works could be collected by an OCR scanner and then read aloud by the Kurzweil reader.

The first computer-based screen reader for individual use was introduced in 1988 to work with MS-DOS. Because many computer operations could be done through the command line and a text buffer, the screen reader was usually external and simply read directly out of the buffer. In the next few years, though, the increasing popularity of GUI operating systems presented a challenge to screen reader developers. The first GUI screen readers came out in 1992, when both IBM and SynthaVoice created individual reading technology. Microsoft also came up with a way for screen readers to be kept informed of what the operating system itself was doing; Apple was struggling financially at the time and did not fund such development. Today there are at least a dozen screen reader programs, including JAWS and Window-Eyes, but these cost several hundred dollars. Some open source screen readers are also available, including Emacspeak. Visually impaired people who do not use a screen reader may use a screen magnifier instead; this can be a hardware or software solution.

Creating web pages to be accessible to blind people can be a difficult task, depending on the complexity and layout of the content one is trying to present. Some developers choose to provide an entirely separate version of their site, either text-only or with minimal graphics, that blind users can choose to view. Others use the same content, but may provide an alternate stylesheet specifically intended for screen readers. All website content should include a few key elements for visually impaired users. Images should be marked with an ALT tag to indicate their content or purpose - a * is a more useful ALT tag than green bullet, and where possible developers can also use the LONGDESC attribute to link to a more detailed text-only description of the graphic. Layout of the website should also be considered by the developer. It is more practical for blind users to hear the content of the webpage first, rather than beginning each new page with a recitation of the site navigation.

Deaf computer users often find that most web content is accessible to them. Because the Internet is visually-oriented, sound is usually secondary to the browsing experience. One critical accommodation that enhances a deaf surfer's enjoyment of a website is captioning for all video content. Although providing a transcript of the video clip may give access to the same information, it is generally difficult to jump back and forth between movie and script, and so embedding captions in the video is preferable. Because computers do not use closed captioning decoder chips as televisions do, captioning on web videos is usually permanent and cannot be turned off. Some website designers may choose to provide a plain video and an identical video with captions added, depending on what the video's content includes.

Deaf-blind people use computers frequently, but doing so presents a unique challenge that may require expensive equipment. A refreshable Braille display has "soft" cells that receive input from the computer and change to produce the appropriate Braille characters. (Blind computer users who are not also deaf may choose to use this technology instead of a screen reader.) There are a few different brands of refreshable Braille displays available; one example is the Focus40 from Freedom Scientific, which costs $3,500. These displays typically sit on the table directly below the keyboard, and they can be customized so frequent commands can be transmitted through the Braille display rather than requiring the user to move their hands up to the standard keyboard. JAWS, the popular screen reader software, can also be configured to work with refreshable Braille displays.

Individuals with mobility impairment may use a wide variety of assistive devices to access their computers and the Internet. An example of this is speech recognition software. Products like Dragon NaturallySpeaking are popular with high-powered executives who can't bother with typing, but they are also used by people with carpal tunnel, quadriplegia, or other impairments that keep them from using a standard keyboard. These products are not only used for taking dictation, but they are also often used to control the computer through commands to open a program, switch windows, and the like. Individuals with severe mobility-related disabilites might use any of several types of switching systems. A combination of hardware and software, these are generally operated by closing and opening a circuit that tells the scanning software what computer function to perform. Switches may be foot-operated, hand-operated, and sip/puff types. Other disabilities require a different type of input device, such as an alternative keyboard - these may be designed for one-handed use, or may not include keys at all. Eyegaze tracking devices are a form of cursor manipulator that uses an external monitor to watch the disabled person's eyes and translate that input into computer commands. A related cursor manipulator is the head pointer system, in which a user with head and neck mobility can perform all mouse functions through head movements.

There are many other options for disabled users of computers and the Internet. Technology may not be up to the level of replacing body parts with exactly identical equivalents, but it certainly has enabled the disabled to achieve a more equal footing in the world of computers.

Additional resources

written for nonficwrimo 06

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