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Understanding Accessible and Assistive Technology

By Jennie Delisi

Why Did You Choose that Word?

So many words, some with similar meanings – why do we need to be specific? Accessibility, features in apps that may assist people with disabilities, assistive technology, accommodations…these words are often used interchangeably, but they are not necessarily the same.

Technology has made huge gains in supporting individuals with disabilities to be more independent but not all of us have kept up with the current vocabulary. If you work with technology, employ humans, or are a human (since most of us are “temporarily abled”) it is important to understand the differences between these terms, and understand how each can impact a person’s ability to be a more independent community member, colleague or boss.

Information and Communication Technology (ICT)

If you are reading this blog on the web, you are using Information and Communication Technology (ICT). Emailing a friend, same thing. Creating a PowerPoint, posting on social media, entering your phone number into an online form that stores it in a database…technology is everywhere, and when we discuss accessible technology, we are discussing ICT.


While there is building accessibility, like entrance ramps, when discussing accessibility in terms of ICT we are discussing how the technology is built. Does the technology communicate information in a way that can be interacted with by those using accessibility features or assistive technologies? Like having automatic doors at the new grocery store, build a website, software, or document for all users. This is typically not a request on behalf of a single individual.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (or WCAG) is an agreement amongst a large group of international accessibility professionals about the basics of digital accessibility. Just as pizzas come in many different varieties but most agree that there are certain requirements for it to be called “pizza;”  accessible digital content comes in many forms but has key similarities such as having text descriptions of images, and videos that have captions. Verifying something is accessible means reviewing the requirements for digital accessibility (the WCAG standard) and checking that the document, software or website meets the requirements.

Usability Testing By Individuals that Use Assistive Technology

This is not a test against the accessibility standard, just like you would not bring in members of the general public to test that all links on your website work. Usability testing by individuals that use assistive technology involves a person answering the question “can I complete task X” and “what challenges made that task easy or difficult.” And, though this person’s results may help you understand the experience of others, it does not ensure that others will have the same experience.

Accessibility Features

Today, many features are built into our computer systems and software to assist people with disabilities. For example, you can use the zoom feature on web browsers to make text larger. Accessibility features are not an add-on – they come with the software or device for all that purchase or use it.

Assistive Technologies

Assistive technology is necessary for some individuals, and is becoming more commonly used than in the past. This is a technology that is “used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities” (Assistive Technology Act of 1998, as amended). An example is software you control with your voice that lets you send email, schedule meetings, and access your voicemail system without using your hands. It may be used to access accessible ICT, and can range from very simple to complex systems. An assistive technology is used by a specific individual with a disability.

Accommodations and Alternative Formats

Accommodations can be requested by an individual “when you know that there is a workplace barrier that is preventing you, due to a disability, from competing for a job, performing a job, or gaining equal access to a benefit of employment like an employee lunch room or employee parking” (from the Job Accommodation Network’s Guide). Accommodations may or may not be assistive technology, depending on the specific needs of the individual. Examples of accommodations may include a request for an alternative format, such as a request for a large print or Braille version of a training’s accessible online handout. Like assistive technology, accommodations and alternative formats are specific to an individual with a disability.

In Conclusion

So why are the terms and their definitions important? We want more people to be able to communicate what they need, what needs to be built, what tools can help a person use the technology, how to get it, and how we can access all the awesome talent available in our community.

Jennie Delisi was formerly an Assistive Technology Resource Specialist for the Minnesota STAR Program and is currently the Accessibility Analyst in Minnesota IT Services’ Office of Accessibility

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Comment by Sarah Giffen-Hunter on November 1, 2017 at 1:46pm

What a great review of these terms with very helpful explanations and examples!

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