What are assistive technologies?
Understand what assistive technologies are and how they help disabled people access and use web content.
Assistive technologies (AT) are hardware and software that give people greater flexibility and control to do things in potentially disabling environments.
Assistive technologies are designed for people who may have difficulty:
- learning and/or remembering
- moving parts of their body.
Different disabilities require different AT. Some people have multiple disabilities that require a custom set of AT.
Using AT, disabled people can perform a wide range of tasks that help them live fuller, more independent lives.
Everyday assistive technologies
Assistive technologies are tools that support people to do things that might otherwise be difficult or impossible. Examples of AT that are used by people with mobility and sensory impairments in the physical environment are:
- hearing aids
- jar openers
Assistive technologies for the web
In a web context, AT are products or systems that disabled people use to access, navigate, interact with and understand web content on computers and mobile devices.
For an introduction to some of ways that disabled people interact with web content, see Tools and Techniques — Web Accessibility Initiative — W3C.
Assistive technologies as user agents
In the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), a user agent is any software that retrieves and presents web content to a user. Examples include:
- a web browser — its primary function is to retrieve and display web content on a screen
- a media player that can browse an online music store as well as play audio files
- a browser plug-in that fetches and displays definitions from the web, when requested, for certain words on the page.
Assistive technologies are user agents that are designed specifically for disabled people — they process and deliver web content to the user, and often work together with other user agents at the same time.
For instance, speech recognition, screen magnification and screen reader software is AT that works together with a browser — another user agent — to present web content to the user.
Built-in accessibility features
Operating systems (OS) come bundled with different AT. For example, Windows and macOS both come with speech recognition, screen magnification and screen reader software.
In addition to AT, operating systems and browsers have built-in features that are not considered separate AT, as they are part of the OS or browser itself. These built-in features are not designed specifically for disabled people — but they are still important for enabling users to customise their experience with content, for example by:
- changing colours and contrast levels — see High contrast and other display modes — Knowledge Area: Colour and contrast
- zooming in on a web page.
To ensure that these additional accessibility features in operating systems and browsers work for users, it’s important to design, develop and test web content with them in mind.
Operating system accessibility features
- Accessibility features in macOS and iOS — Apple
- Accessibility features on Windows 11 — Microsoft
- Android accessibility overview — Google Help