Assistive Technologies on Display at MIT Open House

February, 2003 (Updated June, 2015)

Summary: A report on the assistive and adaptive devices on display at an open house of the Adaptive Technology Information Center (ATIC) Lab at MIT in January, 2003. (The ATIC Lab has been replaced by the Accessibility and Usability Group at MIT.

The Adaptive Technology Information Center (ATIC) program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, provides information technology services for MIT students and staff with disabilities, and the MIT ATIC Lab provides adaptive technologies that help students with many types of disabilities study, take tests, and complete their assignments.

You can visit the Accessibility and Usability Group at MIT (formerly the MIT ATIC Lab) at:

Facilities in the lab help people dealing with repetitive strain injury (RSI), blindness or low vision, learning disabilities, brain injury, deafness and hearing impairments, and mobility impairments. To meet these goals, the ATIC Lab has collected a wide range of assistive devices. Many of these devices were on display at an open house I attended on January 22, 2003.

The devices and technologies were stationed around two small, office-sized rooms, with staff or students on hand to describe and discuss the various hardware, software, and other tools. Even though I was there for almost the entire open house, and I asked many questions, the array of devices was so overwhelming that it was hard to absorb them all.

These devices included:

  • Screen reading software
  • Braille translation and embossing
  • Magnification tools
  • Scanning and reading software
  • Notetakers and language tools
  • Diagramming tools
  • Mouse clicking software utilities
  • Typing break software
  • Voice recognition software
  • Alternative keyboards
  • Alternative pointing devices

Some devices or tools I had heard about, such as the screen reader JAWS, but some I had never seen in action before, such as head wands and foot mice. It was particularly interesting to watch a blind student move through the MIT web page using JAWS. He navigated so quickly (using special keystrokes) that I could not understand the voice that reads the text. He was able to determine that something was not of interest to him and move on before I could even hear what was being said. He told me that it had taken him about a year to get proficient with the program. Obviously, he was more than proficient!

If you would like to try a screen reader simulation, go to this address:

I asked the student what could be done to improve his experience with web pages, and he told me that having ALT text really helped. He turns off all graphics on the page, and JAWS reads him the captions. He showed me how JAWS reads the page in the same order as the HTML, no matter how it is displayed, and how the SCOPE attribute on table header (TH) tags helped to associate table headings with the appropriate cells. He could turn on and off the association being read to him at will.

Other devices were technological revelations to me, such as a touchpad that used fingertips for many more actions than just scrolling (such as resizing windows), and an electronic pen that captured handwritten notes and displayed them on the screen. It is one thing to read about such technologies, but another to try them yourself.

Among the devices on display was a pair of computer mice the size of shoes, operated by foot: one for clicking, and one for scrolling. A consultant at the ATIC Lab showed me how the foot mouse could cause repetitive stress injuries of its own and explained how, when you have no other alternative, you do the best you can with what you have available.

Interesting software included a transparent magnifying window you can move around the screen, and Kurzweil scanning and reading software. The Kurzweil 3000 program pronounced the language much more clearly than JAWS, but it had a lot of trouble interpreting the columns in a newspaper during the demo.

One of the staff members is an expert in web accessibility. Her display included a simulation of various types of color blindness and a handout suggesting web accessibility guidelines. You can find the handout at:

For a simulation of various types of color blindness, visit:

There were many types of alternative keyboards, many split into two or three sections that can be moved independently, some with cup-shaped key clusters for each hand, or a few for only one hand. There were so many types of trackballs and alternative pointing devices, I finally gave up testing them all.

A handout was distributed at the open house listing available devices (with the ones on display indicated in bold type). Each device was associated with links on the web for more information about that device or tool. Being able to see the devices actually being used is undoubtedly the best way to experience them, but visiting the web sites for the various products is the next best thing.

For further information about the devices on display at the open house, visit the Adaptive Technologies page at the ATIC Lab web site at:

Note: Boston-IA has created a list of assistive technologies based on the work of the Accessibility and Usability Group at MIT (formerly the MIT ATIC Lab).

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