If you thought the keyboard, mouse and touchscreens were the only ways to interact with the Internet, think again. Alternative devices for persons with disabilities can be controlled by a puff of air, a simple gesture or even the blink of an eye. The Canadian Survey on Disability reports that over 80% of persons with disability use at least one assistive device . An accessible site needs to consider alternative ways of communicating to reach the broadest possible audience.
Fortunately, the biggest impact comes from simply following best practices in website design and development. Coding standards allow technological solutions to interpret your website in alternative ways. Good design practices like clear navigation and limiting unnecessary inputs improve usability for users with a variety of impairments.
Keyboard alternatives are critical tools for mobility impaired users. Many are very simple devices enabling a standard keyboard to be used with parts of the body other than hands. A mouth stick, for example, is a long stick attached to a mouth piece. A user with limited mobility in their hands is able to press keys by maneuvering this stick. A head wand is similar, except the stick is attached to a head band. This technique can become tiresome very quickly, so limiting the number of required or redundant inputs can make a big difference for this user group.
The stylus used on touch devices can serve the same purpose, giving mobility impaired users improved access to tablets and smart phones. The stylus can also be attached to a mouth piece or headband. Unlike a traditional mouth stick the stylus is adapted to transfer the electrical impulses passed from human skin which touch screens use to interpret commands.
With special software, switch devices can convert on/off signals similar to Morse code, into keyboard clicks. The simplest example is the single-switch access device, which consists of a button placed where the user has the most mobility. It can be under a single finger, or attached to a neck rest in a wheel chair. Another example is the sip and puff switch, which interprets puffs of air. A straw or tubing extends to the users mouth, and they can control devices by breathing into it. Like the mouth stick and head wand, this interaction can be tiresome for the user, so limit required inputs where you can.
Most web and marketing professionals will be familiar with interpretation devices. Screen readers are the most common of these tools, reading the content of a webpage aloud. The JAWS screen reader is the strong leader in this area, but it's an expensive software. NVDA is a free alternative that is quickly growing in popularity. Both rely on standard coding to relay the information to the user consistently and accurately.
Voice recognition software listens for voice commands to interact with the computer, and can type what the user says as they say it. It's often used as a productivity tool, but also has great benefits for users who have difficulty using a mouse, keyboard or touch screen. It's become popular with the success of Siri from Apple and Dragon NaturallySpeaking on PCs.
Although currently prohibitively expensive for the average user, eye tracking devices allow the user to interact with a website by simply looking at the interface and triggering actions by blinking. With the right software the system can be completely integrated into a PC, allowing the user to surf the web where they haven't been able to before.
Wearables also hold promise for people with a range of disabilities. Many watches are synced up with smart phones and tablets. Smart watches are being used to interface with the web using simple arm or hand gestures. The same apps found in tablets and smart phones, including screen readers and voice recognition, can be readily available as wearable tech.
Although not specifically used as website navigation tools, there are some fascinating smart phone apps worth mentioning that help visually impaired and deaf users interpret their environment. The Be My Eyes app allows visually impaired users to snap pictures of their environment to be shared with a community of sighted volunteers who will describe it for them. Is this a can of beans or a can of tomato sauce? Am I on the train platform going West or East? Sound recognition apps listen to the sounds in the environment of deaf users, and notifies them if that shrill sound is the fire alarm or the door bell with vibrations or visual cues. This is useful to both totally deaf users, and those who have trouble distinguishing between different sounds.
Low tech solutions like the mouth stick and high tech solutions like eye tracking allow users who are unable to use a keyboard, mouse or touchscreen to visit your site. Smart, efficient design and standard code can remove barriers on your site for these users. Build your site with assistive devices in mind to extend its reach to the whole population.