Assistive Technology at your library

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Here at the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped we offer technology help with assistive technology.  So what is assistive technology one might ask?

Well, according to the Assistive Technology Industry Assocation:

Assistive technology (AT) is any item, piece of equipment, software program, or product system that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of persons with disabilities.

    • AT can be low-tech: communication boards made of cardboard or fuzzy felt.
    • AT can be high-tech: special-purpose computers.
    • AT can be hardware: prosthetics, mounting systems, and positioning devices.
    • AT can be computer hardware: special switches, keyboards, and pointing devices.
    • AT can be computer software: screen readers and communication programs.
    • AT can be inclusive or specialized learning materials and curriculum aids.
    • AT can be specialized curricular software.
    • AT can be much more—electronic devices, wheelchairs, walkers, braces, educational software, power lifts, pencil holders, eye-gaze and head trackers, and much more.

Assistive technology helps people who have difficulty speaking, typing, writing, remembering, pointing, seeing, hearing, learning, walking, and many other things. Different disabilities require different assistive technologies.

Our experience with assistive technology is not as broad as what this definition encompasses as most of the people we work with are using technology specifically for the visually impaired.  There are most certainly technologies for people with all different types of abilities, such as TTY (Text Telephone) and TRL for folks who are hearing impaired.

We work with people on using their smart phones (Apple or Android), flip phones, tablets, and on PCs.  We do this both in person and over the phone.  One of the technologies that many of our patrons use are screen readers, which are called different things based on the product being used.

Apple’s screen reader for iPhones and iPads is called VoiceOver.  Android’s is called TalkBack.  Microsoft has Narrator, and there are third party screen readers that can also be used on PCs.  These software products do what their name says, they read what is on a screen and provide and interface to interact with those options using audio cues, gestures, and keyboard commands.  Often when people who are losing their sight later in life start using our service they say things like “I can’t use a phone/computer/tablet, I’m blind”, but blind people can and do interact with the same technology as a sighted person.

So how does a person who can’t see use a touch screen device, when the very idea of a screen is a visual output device?  Well, the person uses gestures to swipe through what they hear on the screen.  Just as all who are computer users had to learn to use the mouse at some point in their lives, people learning to interact with screen readers on phones or tablets must learn the right movements and gestures, which takes practice to build muscle memory.  If you’ve ever seen anyone use a mouse for the first time, you know how difficult these movements can be for that person learning them for the first time.  After time they become second nature.  The same is true of the gestures used in screen readers, and with other kinds of assistive technology.

I’d like to emphasize that here at the Carnegie Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped we are not experts in assistive tech, but rather that we work with people to learn the technology that they’re using, and then try to coach them through the best way to use these devices.   We do this both in person as an event, by appointment, and over the phone for anyone who receives our services in Pennsylvania (although over the phone can be more challenging).

Do you have an assistive tech question that you’d like answered?  Do you know someone who could benefit from our training?  If so, please give us a call to schedule something soon!  412.687.2440 or 800.242.0586

Best wishes!