Strategies to improve computer access for students with disabilities

03/21/2011  |  SUE HOSSACK

Do you have students for whom handwriting is difficult or laborious, but they seem unable to use a computer keyboard as an alternative? Do typing tutors leave them frustrated and with feelings of failure? Are there students with poor coordination unable to use a standard keyboard or mouse? Students with multiple or complex disabilities have probably received an assistive technology evaluation and have customized tools to help them. But for many other students who would like to use the computer, this article will give you some easy, and in most cases free, methods to make computer use easier and more accessible.

Software Options

Unlike typing tutors which expect a certain level of literacy,  there are programs like “Miss Sue’s Keyboard Fun” that teach the location of keys on the keyboard. Using onscreen visual cues to the letter placement, sight and sound reward the correct key press. An example is a picture of a dog and the sound ��D is for Dog“ when the D key is pressed. Educators can add their own pictures and sounds so the student can be further motivated by seeing a picture of themselves when they press the letter of their first name: or see their friends or cartoon characters. This audio and visual feedback reinforces the letter use and the student begins to learn where each one is on the keyboard.

Each line of keys is isolated. The task can be made progressively more difficult — hiding the letters on the screen except the current one — or randomly requesting the next letter. Once the child has mastered finding individual keys, the next step is to enter a spelling list — Dolch words are included — and have the child type each word. The whole keyboard is displayed with visual cues, and errors can be selectively ignored. This is a low-cost solution, which includes daily data collection to measure progress.

Free Settings for the PC

Did you know that you can turn off “double-clicking” on a Windows PC? Students with coordination difficulties may be unable to utilize the computer independently because they cannot double-click to activate a program or open a file. Yet it is very easy to turn off this option: once set, simply move the mouse to a file or program to select it; one click will then open it. This can make the difference between independence on the computer and not.

How difficult is it for some students to press two keys simultaneously (such as Shift +letter for capitals, or Ctrl+letter for short cuts)? With ‘Sticky Keys’ turned on the user presses the keys in sequence (perhaps using only one hand) and gets the same effect as if they had pressed them together. Again this can make the difference between independence and needing assistance.

Another problem that plagues many with coordination difficulties is that they hold the key down for too long and get unwanted repeat characters. This feature can be disabled, so that the student can be successful even though they cannot release the letter keys in a timely manner.

Microsoft Word and other word processors have the ability to set up forms with check boxes, radio buttons, and text boxes. Use this feature to set up tests on the computer. Coupled with the text-to-voice narrator the test can be read aloud to the student without human involvement.

Most of the above settings are available on both Windows and Mac machines. Also standard is the ability to enlarge icons and text, an inbuilt screen magnifier, and a narrator — which will read aloud anything on the screen. Locating them depends on the version of Windows or MAC.

Hardware Options

There are a number of inexpensive tools that make using the keyboard and mouse easier. The Greystone Digital company (www.bigKeys,com) make keyboards with large (1” square) keys and a reduced character set to remove clutter. The keys can be ordered in lower case if desired, and they have a variety of key colors to assist those with visual difficulties, such as black on yellow, white on black. Alternatively, buying or making labels with large lowercase letters can make the difference to a student who is struggling to find the letter placement on the keyboard. A keyguard can be placed over the keyboard to prevent a finger from pressing two keys at once. There are many adapted versions of the mouse available with roller balls and large buttons.

Making some of these settings changes may make the computer more accessible to many more students. Consider contacting you I.T. department to have them implemented at your school.

Sue Hossack is an Occupational Therapist working in the Montgomery County (VA) school district and is the owner of OT-CARE, developing software for people with disabilities. She was a software engineer for many years before retraining as an Occupational Therapist. For more information on these computer tips visit
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