“Accessibility” is the design of products, devices, services, or environments for people who experience disabilities. The concept of accessible design and practice of accessible development ensures both “direct access”, i.e. unassisted, and “indirect access”, i.e. compatibility with a person’s assistive technology, e.g. computer screen readers. Accessibility can be viewed as the “ability to access” and benefit from some system or entity. The concept focuses on enabling access for people with disabilities, or special needs, or enabling access through the use of assistive technology; however, research and development in accessibility brings benefits to everyone.
“Assistive Technology” (AT) is defined as “any item, piece of equipment or system, whether acquired commercially, modified or customized, that is used to increase, maintain or improve functional capacities of individuals with disabilities.” For example, screen readers used by people with vision impairments to navigate the web are considered assistive technology.
“Accessible technology” is technology that can be used successfully by people with a wide range of abilities and disabilities. When technology is accessible, each user is able to interact with it in ways that work best for him or her. Accessible technology is either directly accessible, whereby it is usable without additional assistive technology, or it is compatible with AT. For example, a mobile smartphone with a built-in screen reader is directly accessible, whereas a website that can be navigated effectively by people with visual impairments using a screen reader is AT-compatible.
Accessibility is all about the user interface; it gives the user a convenient, effective, and equitable way to control the technology and put it to good use. As such, accessibility often falls into the same category as usability, in that both seek to improve the user experience and effectiveness of the product. Usability covers the user experience broadly, while accessibility addresses the specific needs of disabled users. However, in terms of actual product features, they often overlap. For example, a feature like volume control benefits everyone, as does the ability to zoom the display on a small mobile device. This overlap is often referred to as “universal design,” which means the design of products to be used by the widest range of people possible.
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