Computing With Disabilities
Off-the-shelf computers use a set of standard input and output devices that have not changed much over the last few decades: keyboard, mouse, screen and audio speakers are the most common. However, these are not suitable for everyone, or at least not as they are originally configured. Some users need a specially adapted keyboard, mouse or output hardware while other users can manage with fairly simple software modifications. On some cases software can be used to emulate one of these devices through another, such as sound events displayed on the screen, or the numeric keypad used to move the mouse cursor. The spectrum of use cases is wide, from those who require a slightly larger font to those who need a switch-operated scanning system.
The Nature of Disability
There is a large spectrum of conditions that might be considered a disability, from the very severe to those who might not ever think of themselves as disabled, but who might still benefit from some assistive technology. Common to all of them however is that factors in the environment can greatly affect the level of the disability.
For example, someone who is unable to navigate stairs becomes very disabled in a town where there are stairs everywhere, but much less so if the stairs were replaced with ramps. They would then be able to do their banking, shopping and visit friends without noticeable inconvenience. Likewise, someone with a mild condition like color-blindness would be severely affected if society was structured such that vital functions relied on recognition of colors.
A Changing Society
Some groups of disabled people were early adopters of computer technology. Having books and newspapers available in electronic form gives increased flexibility to many and specialist input and output hardware have provided assistance in vital basic communication. In that sense, computers have made many people less disabled than they would otherwise be.
At the same time, our society generally is becoming increasingly based on computerized information and communication. It is becoming increasingly common to perform everyday tasks such as banking, shopping or inter-personal communication on-line. In a world where hardware, software and on-line content is evolving quickly it is a continuing challenge to insure that equal access is maintained. An inaccessible computer system can easily become a virtual staircase.
The demographics of society and therefore of computer users is also changing. Not only are a growing number of older people logging on, but computer use is increasing in parts of the world where literacy rates are low. Ensuring that computers are accessible for these groups often also has the added bonus of making them easier to use for everyone. Accessibility is cutting edge in software design