Technology, it is everywhere, taken for granted and integrated into our everyday lives. As a student, in the workplace or for entertainment at home: technology has never been more accessible. Have you ever looked at a website or the Internet from the perspective of how someone with a disability would see it? I didn’t, until I met with AbilityNet.
In July this year I had a meeting with my fellow team at Technica Solutions about finding a charity partner that uses technology to help people, a “Technica in the Community” project we set up to give something back for the good of the technology industry.
One month later I found myself in one of AbilityNet’s assessment rooms, experiencing first hand problems that face the disabled and elderly, coupled with solutions that give people, regardless of their disability the ability to express themselves in a way no previous generation has.
We discussed the huge spending power of disabled people which is overlooked when designing apps, ticketing or payment systems for everyday transactions. Accessibility features built into desktop systems that are not always being translated into mobile platforms. I learnt about the work of The AbilityNet team and volunteers who work with companies to improve their websites, databases and other IT systems. I was especially fascinated to hear the round the clock accessibility testing services that AbilityNet provided to the London 2012 games as the approved supplier. The projects and programmes provided to businesses and the end user were without limits.
Robin Christopherson, Head of Digital Inclusion at AbilityNet helps us to understand the benefits of the end user first hand, being blind himself.
“I personally used my iPhone with a self-voicing GPS app on my way home from the station today with a new guide dog who wouldn’t have known where to turn otherwise. I’d previously set a geo-breadcrumb so that the app (Ariadne GPS) was able to count me down to the turn in 30m intervals as well as telling me where it was on a clockface according to the direction I was walking. It also told me house numbers as I walked past so I could know when I’d arrived. I’ve also used another app (Talking Goggles) that speaks any object you point the phone’s camera at to tell me which card was my Visa. That’s the fancy stuff. I also used it to get the train times, listen to podcasts and do lots of email. I don’t even take my laptop anywhere any more. Technology really is extremely useful!”
Giving students a chance
First hand experience cannot be beaten by factual information and I had the privilege of meeting Robin Hodges, one of the assessors who makes a huge impact on the lives of students by identifying the right specialist equipment to meet their needs. He explained that some people do not have the same processes when writing essays and often have difficulty with organising their thoughts and the writing process itself. I saw a specialist software called mind-mapping which can help to quickly get a number of ideas down quickly without worrying about structure or order overcoming the ’blank page‘ block. This could easily be a list of words with key areas or phrases. Equally, for some users, a sequence of pictures or symbols alongside text can be helpful. Clicker, Writing with Symbols, Wordbar, Textease and Granada Smart- Bank all offer wordbank support which may support the user as a planning and organisational aid. It was fantastic to see the opportunities that such software can provide for the individual’s needs. I was amazed by the effectiveness of Dragon Naturally Speaking voice recognition, the words appearing on the screen as they are communicated by voice, ideal for those less able to use their hands.
Technology has a crucial role in bypassing the difficulties associated with disability. Whether it’s a piece of complex software or a simple recording device, a piece of technology provides the user with a greater sense of empowerment and autonomy than relying on other people to help them out. Not too long ago, a disabled student might frequently require a note-taker during lectures, a scribe and reader during examinations, and extensive one-to-one support to help develop coursework. While this human support is sometimes still relevant and useful today, in many cases a technological solution can be much more effective. For example, a student could use a digital voice recorder, a tablet or a laptop computer to record information during lectures, often in audio, text and visual formats, all at the same time. The same student might use text-to-speech software to convert research material into customisable audio, or speech-to-text software to dictate written work with an extremely high degree of accuracy.
Another key point is that technology is constantly reinventing itself, whereas the human approach is a more or less static solution with little scope for improvement. Visual aids have come on in leaps and bounds over the last decade, providing much more nuanced functionality in a more adaptable and portable format. Not long ago, a desktop CCTV magnifier would have been a common sight in the home of a visually impaired user; today, the same core functionality can be achieved using a laptop, a piece of software and an external webcam, with a much greater degree of customisation, portability and synergy with other devices.
Working with Assistive Technology is extremely exciting: there’s always something new to try and learn, and absolutely no room for complacency.
Last month the team at Technica Solutions met with Nigel Lewis CEO of AbilityNet to take on their ‘Look No Hands’ text donate challenge. How can sending a text message to donate be a challenge? We weren’t allowed to use our hands. A small insight into the restrictions that affect those less able to do tasks that the majority of us do without a thought. Here is the video from Look No Hands.
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In Technica’s local County of Hertfordshire, the IT Can Help service has 14 volunteers and a regional coordinator. So far this year 15 home visits have been made to help the disabled in Hertfordshire. Awareness is key. Technica have offered their 13 technician strong team to be part of IT Can Help voluntary service so that there will be more volunteers to help those disabled and elderly most in need.
Reliable access to computers and the internet can change the lives of disabled people. AbilityNet’s ITCanHelp Home Visit Service has a network of disclosure checked volunteers who offer free computer assistance to disabled people in their own homes. They may have a problem with viruses, need some help installing broadband or be confused about updates or error messages. IT Can Help volunteers can help in all sorts of ways, including:
Diagnosing and fixing computer related problems
Help with internet, email and accessibility settings.
AbilityNet offers a free helpline so please call them on 0800 269 545 to find an IT Can Help Volunteer. They offer an amazing free service to those in need, so spread the word.