Technology and disability: impacts and opportunities

Updated: May 15, 2019

The bridges and barriers to inclusive technology



Woman helping a boy with a laptop

Technology is challenging the traditional ways we live and work. Developments in internet and digital technologies are helping create more equal opportunities, allowing people with disability to achieve more in education, employment and the community.


But while technology continues to advance, there are still significant barriers to access and usage for people with disability. And as day-to-day tasks and services move primarily and exclusively online, some people in our community are at risk of being left behind.


This article talks about technology and disability, and how it’s shaping an accessible future for people. We look at some of the products now available as well as the many challenges to accessibility.



Technology and disability: Opportunities that empower people

‘For most people, technology makes things easier. For people with disabilities, technology makes things possible.’ Mary Pat Radabaugh, formerly with the IBM National Support Center for Persons with Disabilities.


New technologies offer people with disability a range of opportunities.


Everyday consumer devices, like smartphones, tablets and computers, now offer functionalities that allow people with a disability to receive information and content in a way that suits them. Features like short message service (SMS) and word prediction software help people use these devices reliably and effectively.


Other examples include:

  • text-to-speech (TTS)

  • screen magnification

  • changeable screen brightness and colour contrast

  • vibrational alerts

  • closed and open captioning

  • GPS navigation devices

  • touch screen devices

  • audio descriptions of graphics and visual media

  • digital organisation and memory tools

  • online communication and collaboration documentation.

Specialised assistive and adaptive technologies, like screen reading software and augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices, are helping to promote independence and participation.


Other assistive technology examples include:

  • FM hearing transmitters

  • Braille displays

  • Telecommunications Relay Service and Text Telephone

  • Telecommunication Device for the Deaf (TTY/TDD)

  • hearing amplification and filtering apps

  • eye-gaze and gesture-controlled devices

  • adapted and virtual keyboards, joysticks and adapted mouse

  • 3D-printed and bioelectronic prosthetics

  • speech-generating devices with synthesised voice output.


Artificial intelligence (AI) is powering rapid developments in computer features and voice recognition services, bringing much-needed accessibility features to mainstream devices. The opportunities for AI could revolutionise the professional and personal opportunities for people with disability.


Other examples include:

  • character and image recognition devices

  • biometric logins

  • virtual home assistants.


Seeing AI is a free mobile app designed for the low-vision community. The app describes nearby environments and people, reads facial expressions, texts and objects to narrate the world around you.


Microsoft Soundscape is an innovative audio-based technology helping people with impaired vision feel more confident in busy or unfamiliar spaces. Soundscape uses 3D audio cues to help people build a richer awareness of their surroundings.


Eyegaze Edge is an eye-tracking computer access system for people with complex physical disabilities. The eye-gaze camera allows people to control a computer with their eyes, to synthesize speech, type and operate a mouse.


dbGLOVE is a wearable device helping deaf-blind people communicate with others and operate mobile devices. By pressing different parts of the hand, the glove translates a touch-based alphabet into computer text or speech. Replies are translated into vibrations that simulate touch cues on the glove.


IBM’s Content Clarifier is an artificial intelligence solution making reading, writing and comprehending digital content easier. The user adds content, which is then simplified, summarised or replaced with symbols for better understanding.


Everywhere Venues is a new app helping people with disability determine whether a space is suitable for their needs. With just a few swipes, users can find information about accessible facilities and mobility requirements before making a booking.


Proloquo2Go is an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) app for that allows people without speech to easily communicate using symbols. The app is completely customisable for a range of fine-motor and visual skills.



Barriers to accessing digital technology in the disability sector

While there have been great advancements in assistive technology, these changes alone don’t support inclusion for people with disability.


The recent Australian Digital Inclusion Index 2018 showed that while digital inclusion in Australia had improved overall, the digital inclusion gap between Australians with a disability and other Australians has grown substantially.


Around one in five Australians have a disability, which means a significant portion of the community may be experiencing barriers to accessible technology.

So, why is there a digital divide?


Digital inclusion is not only about the technology, but being able to use the technology to manage your life better. And to experience the same economic, social and financial benefits as others.


Over 2.5 million Australians are not online, and many lack the confidence, knowledge and skills to take full advantage of online services. For those in lower income households, affordability affects whether there is internet access at home.


Assistive technology for the disabled is often expensive and many people with disabilities, their families and disability service providers are unaware of the technology available to them, its affordability and return on investment. There is also a gap in legislation and policy to promote and enforce the implementation of accessible technology in education and work environments.


And despite advancements in assistive technology, accessibility isn’t always built into the products and devices we use. Some common problems people with disability face include:

  • challenging graphic interfaces preventing screen readers from identifying and describing illustrative elements

  • a lack of keyboard navigation to use a website without a mouse

  • use of Flash technology that excludes screen readers

  • rapidly flashing content with no opt-out button

  • no alt-text labels or descriptions for images and form fields

  • colour-coding important information.


Inclusive technology and disability in the future


Everyone should have the opportunity to use technology fully. To do this, we need to address the social, physical and virtual barriers that have previously marginalised people with disability.


Conversations about accessibility need to happen at the start of the design process, to make sure it meets the varying and future needs of people in our community. Implementing standards in the design stage is simpler and more cost-effective than retrofitting accessibility later.


And a greater emphasis needs to be placed on inclusive design, where technology can be used by everyone without the need for specialised or adapted features.


At First2Care, we designed our NDIS Plan Management App in collaboration with people with disability. Using the app, you can easily build a profile of your life, goals and aspirations to ensure your NDIS planning meeting goes smoothly, so you get the funding you need.

With help from our low-vision beta testing team, we’re making improvements the app’s accessibility for people who rely on assistive technology like Zoomtext (text zoom for computers) and TalkBack (Android mobile screen reader) as well as built-in iPhone accessibility features.


As we update the features and functionality of the app, we’ll continue to test and update it, to ensure our content continues to be accessible to people with low-vision.


Advances in technology are changing the way we live. Digital technologies are now part of almost every aspect of life and central to our daily activities.


But for people with a disability, technological innovations have the potential to transform lives.


Technology can break down traditional barriers and allow people with a disability to fully participate in society. To have greater access to education, skills development, social interaction and employment.


To be part of a world with unlimited possibilities and opportunities.


We should continue to improve accessible technology, making it even better and more user-friendly. With greater inclusion of people with disability in technology, we can move towards creating products and services that work for everybody.


First2Care is Australia’s first full NDIS Plan Management App that delivers support to participants in a way that suits them. If you’d like more information about the First2Care app, please contact our friendly team on 1300 837 721.


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