How might information technologies present barriers to employees with disabilities?

Updated January 11th, 2013

A disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, such as walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, working, caring for oneself, and performing manual tasks. Examples of disabilities include AIDS, cancer, Cerebral Palsy, Diabetes, Epilepsy, head injuries, hearing impairments, learning disabilities, loss of limbs, Muscular Dystrophy, psychiatric disorders, speech impairments, spinal cord injuries, and blindness.

Information technology (IT) includes computer hardware and software, web sites, multimedia presentations, telecommunications products such as telephones, information kiosks and transaction machines, office equipment such as copiers and fax machines, and any other technology that facilitates the creation, conversion, or duplication of data or information.

Most individuals with disabilities are able to use IT. However, they are dependent on developers of IT products to design their products to support the needs of the broadest possible array of users. If IT products are designed solely for the "average user," they can be difficult or impossible for individuals with specific disabilities to effectively use. Described below are a few access challenges regularly faced by customers or employees with disabilities.

Computers

Some individuals with disabilities cannot operate a standard keyboard and/or mouse. Adaptive or assistive technology, comprising a wide range of devices, allows individuals with mobility impairments to access computers. It includes mini-, expanded, and other alternative keyboards; speech input systems; and alternatives to a standard mouse. These devices are available for all commonly used computers. Some individuals with visual impairments require that images be enlarged, and some cannot see the computer screen at all. Software is readily available for enlarging screen images; in addition, speech output systems are available for reading text presented on the screen, but these systems cannot provide access to content presented only in a graphical form.

Web Pages

Individuals who are blind and using speech output systems cannot access web content that is presented only in a graphical form and can have difficulty accessing content presented in tables and other forms, unless the content is designed with access in mind. People who are color-blind cannot discriminate between color-coded options. Individuals who are deaf cannot access content presented via audio output unless captions or transcriptions are provided.

Telephones

People who are deaf or hard of hearing and individuals with visual impairments, mobility impairments, and speech impairments experience difficulty when trying to operate standard telephones.

Photocopy and Fax Machines

Photocopy and fax machines cannot be accessed by individuals who use wheelchairs if the controls are not easy to reach and the systems are not at an accessible height. Those who have low vision cannot access instructions and labels available only in small print. Those who are blind cannot access instructions presented only in visual form.

Potential access barriers for people with disabilities should be considered when products are developed.

Mobile Devices

Mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets can be inaccessible for people with physical, visual or auditory disabilities. Touch screens can be inaccessible to people who are blind or who have low-vision, as there are no tactile cues such as buttons or a physical keyboard for navigation purposes, such as scrolling through programs or entering telephone numbers or email addresses. Small text size cannot be read by people with low vision, while people who are deaf cannot receive calls or audio messages. Small keys or buttons can create barriers for those who have mobility impairments.

Smart phones and tablets now incorporate many accessibility features, such as voice-activated controls and commands, speech output to read text or navigation cues, or a combination of gestures for touch screens and a physical keyboard for inputting information. Smart phones that display voice messages or emails in text form can be useful for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.