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Frequently Asked Questions

What does “technology” mean?

“Technology” refers to both "electronic" and "information" technology. Electronic and information technology includes:

  • Any equipment or interconnected system or subsystem of equipment, that is used in the automatic acquisition, storage, manipulation, management, movement, control, display, switching, interchange, transmission, or reception of data or information; and
  • Any equipment or interconnected system or subsystem of equipment, that is used in the creation, conversion, or duplication of data or information.

For example, computers, peripheral equipment, software, firmware, services, documentation, telecommunications products such as telephones, and office equipment such as copiers and fax machines (Office of the Federal Register 2000, p. 80499). Throughout this topic, when the term “technology” is used, it refers to electronic and information technology.

What is “access?”

Another important term used in this topic area is “access,” as it relates to the use of computer hardware, software, and other technology. According to the National Science Foundation, “access implies the ability to find, manipulate and use information in an efficient and comprehensive manner” (Lesk, 1998). Too often even those individuals with disabilities who have a computer and Internet connection, still cannot use all features because of inaccessible features of hardware and/or software (Waddell, 1999). They have technology, but do not have full access to all of the benefits it delivers to others. For example, a person who is blind may be able to use some Web page content that is in text format, but not have "access" to the content that is displayed in only a graphics format.

What is “assistive technology?”

“Assistive technology” is defined as “any item, piece of equipment, or system, whether acquired commercially, modified, or customized, that is commonly used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.” (Section 508, 1998). Assistive technology helps people with disabilities independently complete daily living tasks, assists them in communicating with other individuals, and provides access to education, employment, and recreation. It can be used to minimize the impact of a disability. Examples of assistive technology include wheelchairs, alternated automobile controls, wheelchair lifts on vans, environmental control units, communication aids, hearing aids, and alternative input devices for computers. For the purpose of this area of the Web site, assistive technology that interfaces with electronic and information technology is of most interest.

What is “universal design?”

"Universal design" is another important concept as it relates to making technology accessible to individuals with disabilities. "Universal design" is defined by the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University as “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” (Center for Universal Design: General principles of universal design include:

  • The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
  • The design communicates necessary information effectively, regardless of ambient conditions or the users sensory abilities.
  • The design can be used efficiently and comfortably, and with a minimum of fatigue.
  • Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of users body size, posture, or mobility.

Universal design refers to designing products and environments that address the needs of a broad audience of users, as opposed to designing for the average user. It is defined by the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University as the "design of products and environments to be useable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design." Applying universal design principles to technology hardware, software and services creates hardware, software and services that are accessible to people with a wide variety of characteristics, including disabilities, and decreases the need for assistive technology and other accommodations.

When producers of hardware and software apply universal design principles, their products are more usable by people with a wide range of abilities and disabilities. The need for assistive technology is minimized and, when needed, commonly used assistive technology is compatible with these products. For example, if universal design principles are applied to the development of Web pages, they will be usable by visitors who have visual impairments the require the use of speech output systems. Similarly, accessible telecommunications products make communication accessible to everyone, including those with hearing impairments.

What technology do people who are blind typically use to access computers?

Students who are unable to read print of any size can use screen reader software with speech or Braille output. Text that appears on the screen, including the labels of icons, buttons, and menu items, is either spoken by a speech synthesizer or displayed in Braille on a built-in or external Braille display.

Our computing lab is wheelchair accessible. Is that enough?

Once wheelchair users enter the computing facility, they will still need to access the computers. Assistive hardware and software might be required in order for some students to access the computers. Some students will still face barriers to accessing the Web and other software, if they are not purchased and created with access in mind. Guidelines for making your computer lab accessible to students with disabilities can be found at

Can students with learning disabilities benefit from using specialized computer products?

Many students with learning disabilities benefit from using computers to support reading, writing, mathematics and organizational skills. Needs vary greatly among individual students. Some students benefit from using standard built-in spelling /grammar checker features of word processors and electronic mail software. Other individuals may benefit from specialized phonetic spelling software, which can translate words spelled phonetically into correctly spelled words. Speech output systems and large print technology can benefit some students. And, speech recognition software that allow students to dictate assignments is sometimes useful.

Why is the issue of Web accessibility getting so much attention recently?

More people are aware of accessibility issues regarding people with disabilities due in part to the publicity generated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the actions of disability rights advocates. In addition, in the early days of the Internet, information was text-based and thus very accessible to individuals using assistive technology; also, sound output was not available. The explosion of multimedia on the Web resulted in access barriers for people with disabilities, particularly for those who have sensory impairments. The fact that, through requirements of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Web pages of Federal agencies must comply with accessibility standards has also increased public awareness of the issue.

How can I make my distance learning course accessible to students and instructors with disabilities?

To make a distance learning course accessible to students and instructors with disabilities requires that all strategies and tools used in the course be designed in accessible formats. This includes on-site retreats, communication tools, Web pages, multimedia and printed materials. It is also important to include a statement on all program promotional materials about how to obtain materials in alternate format and how to obtain disability-related accommodations. A summary of access guidelines and resources for making distance learning course accessible to students and instructors with disabilities can be found at

How have postsecondary institutions responded to the need to make their Web pages accessible to visitors with disabilities?

Many campuses have developed Web accessibility design policies and procedures.


The following sources were cited in this Frequently Asked Questions. For additional research and resources, see our links to other pages on this topic below.

Lesk, M. E. (1998, November 12). Letter from National Science Foundation. Retrieved from

Office of the Federal Register, National Archives and Records Service, General Services administration (2000, December 21). Electronic and information technology accessibility standards. The Federal Register, 65(246), 80499–80528.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (1998, amended). 29 U.S.C. 794(d). Retrieved from

Waddell, C. D. (1999, May). The growing digital divide in access for people with disabilities: Overcoming barriers to barriers to participation in the digital economy, Understanding the Digital Economy Conference. Retrieved from

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