Understanding Assistive Technology: How Do People with Mobility Disabilities Use Technology?

Written by: E Foley

Understanding digital accessibility challenges is easy if you know people with disabilities. But what if you’ve never seen a person with limited mobility use their computer or smartphone? We’re here to help you understand a little bit about what it’s like to use the internet if you have a disability. Check out our previous articles in this series:

Today, we are focusing on people with disabilities that affect their movement.

What do we mean by “mobility disability”?

A mobility disability is any disability that affects a person’s ability to independently and purposefully use their physical body. It can be anything from paralysis to neurological conditions that cause hand tremors. In the aging population, arthritis is a common mobility issue. Some mobility disabilities are temporary (breaking an arm), while others have symptoms that worsen as the body part is used (carpal tunnel syndrome).

Assistive technology for people with mobility disabilities

There are many different ways that people with mobility disabilities can access technology. Some are things you have used (Alexa!), some are things you’ve probably accidentally encountered (Sticky Keys!), and some you may have never heard of before.

Keyboard-only navigation

Some people with mobility disabilities cannot grip a mouse. Others have tremors that make using a mouse or touchpad extremely frustrating. They use the keyboard alone to navigate websites.

Sticky Keys is a standard feature on most operating systems that helps people who cannot hold down two keys at once. (For example, to capitalize a letter or reboot using Ctrl-Alt-Del.)

Alternative keyboards

Many people with mobility disabilities prefer an alternative keyboard, such as a larger keyboard, one-handed keyboard, Bluetooth-enabled keyboard, or a curved keyboard that can be used with a stylus/wand held in the mouth.

Voice-activated technology

Amazon’s Alexa (and similar devices) has been a great convenience for many people. For those with mobility disabilities, voice-activated technology can give them more independence. They can unlock their front door, adjust the thermostat, dim the lights, and turn up the music, all without needing to move.

For computer use, Dragon NaturallySpeaking is the leading speech recognition software. It can be used to dictate text, but it can also navigate the web and applications. For example, a person could say “activate Submit” to click the submit button on a form. A mouse grid is also available to simulate a mouse click on the screen if the website or application doesn’t recognize the direct navigation command.

Eye tracking devices

Eye tracking devices enable the use of technology by anyone who can move their eyes! Instead of using a mouse to interact with the screen, the program tracks eye or head movements to determine where the person is focusing and what they want to click on. Eye tracking software can also be used in conjunction with a switch device.

Switch devices

Switches allow users to operate their computer or mobile phones with one or two switches (or buttons) that can be placed wherever a person needs them. If they can control one body part (e.g., head, hand, foot), they can operate a switch. Sip and puff devices are a form of switch: a person sips or puffs on a straw to operate the switch. (Read more on switch control for iOS and switch access for Android.)

Accessibility settings for mobile devices

Both iOS and Android devices have a variety of settings to help those with limited manual dexterity.

  • Assistive Touch allows users to assign common tasks to custom gestures. For example, if you can’t pinch to zoom, you can assign a different gesture to zoom.
  • Touch accommodations can be made for things like hold duration, repeat filter, and activation point. (This is especially useful for people who accidentally tap on things!)

Accessibility barriers for people with mobility disabilities

Here are some accessibility issues that restrict access to people with mobility disabilities:

Lack of keyboard accessibility

Have you ever tried to browse the web using only your keyboard? Try it! Use the Tab key to move and the Enter key to “click” on things. Harder than it looks, right? Can you see where you are on the page? If not, there’s a problem with focus.

Keyboard accessibility and focus management can present problems for sighted users with motor and dexterity issues, and individuals who may have external keyboards and other manual switches that they use in conjunction with their mobile devices.

Mobile experiences that are locked in one orientation

While mobile devices have accessibility features for a variety of needs, one small problem that can make a big user impact is if the app or mobile site only works in one orientation (i.e., portrait or landscape. If a person has their tablet mounted on their wheelchair, for example, they may not be able to flip its orientation.

Timing out

Using an alternative keyboard, mouth wand, or switch device is a slow process. Websites or applications with timers can be very frustrating, especially when it is difficult to access the dialog box to select that you need more time.

Small controls & one-word links

Very small active touch regions can be a problem for all users, but especially for those with motor or dexterity issues. This includes one-word links! Trying to click on the word “here” is much more difficult than clicking “Get our cool new infographic.”  (Bonus: Link text that can stand alone is also a best practice for designing for screen readers.)

Lacks ability to change gestures, movements, and input methods

If a product uses multipoint or path-based gestures, it should also function with a single pointer and without complex gestures. If an app uses a movement to cause action (e.g., shake the phone to turn the page of an ebook), the user should be able to change or disable that feature.

The bottom line: Design to include people with mobility disabilities

You can design your websites, software, and hardware with people with disabilities in mind and you can retrofit existing technology to be accessible. It’s a win-win situation for your organization (more clients, more revenue, more contracts) and people with disabilities (less confusion, less frustration, less isolation).  Some fixes, like ensuring that your website has a visual indication of focus, are quick to do and make a big impact on the user experience.