17 big ways tech is helping disabled people achieve goals: 2016 International Day of Persons with Disabilities #idpd

There are 12 million disabled people in the UK, and an estimated 1.1 billion worldwide. Since 1992 the UN has promoted a day of observance and understanding of disability issue and this year's theme is is 'Achieving 17 Goals for the Future We Want'. We asked 17 of our followers, supporters and staff about the role of technology can play in achieving current and future life goals.

What is the role of technology in achieving life goals for disabled people?

Prof Stephen Hawking has achieved amazing things in his life thanks to technology

Professor Stephen Hawking

“I was lucky to be born in the computer age, without computers my life would have been miserable and my scientific career impossible. Technology continues to empower people of all abilities and AbilityNet continues to help disabled people in all walks of life.” (2012)

Kate Headley, Director of Consulting, The Clear Company

“As someone who now has limited vision, I can honestly say that technology has been the game changer for me. Although I have no secrets - with large font on phone and computer and I regularly share my texts out loud with fellow passengers. But I am independent at home and at work and just awaiting the driverless car!”

Joanna Wootten: Age, Disability and Inclusion expert at Solutions Included

“Technology has transformed my working life. As a deaf person I can now communicate directly with hearing people using emails, text messages, live messaging, or have conversations with them via Skype or FaceTime.  For larger meetings, the advent of reliable wifi means I can use my mobile phone or tablet to access remote captioning so I don't miss a word."

Sarah-Jane Peake, assistive technology trainer, Launchpad Assistive Technology

"Working one-to-one with students, I’ve had the privilege of seeing the wonderful impact technology can make to someone with a disability or specific learning disabilities. The confidence of being able to proof-read an essay using text-to-speech, the independence offered by voice recognition software that finally allows a student to fully express their ideas, or the relief felt by a student who has just discovered mind-mapping strategies that compliment the way they think. Technology is changing people’s lives."

Sean Douglas

Sean Douglas, founder of dyslexia podcast The Codpast

"There's masses of tech out there that allows people with disabilities to reach their full potential. Long gone are the days when assistive tech was cumbersome, expensive and specialist, now your smart phone can give you much of the help you need to deal with everyday tasks you may find difficult. "Surprisingly a lot of this assistive functionality is built into your phone's operating system or is available from third parties for free or for a small charge."

Georgina Eversfield Tanner, client of AbilityNet's ITCanHelp volunteering service

I've never had a computer before, but it's opened up a whole new world since my stroke. But I did say one day to Andy, my ITCanHelp volunteer from AbilityNet, 'what idiot put Angry Birds on there. There are so many of them and I'm absolutely hooked! Technology and AbilityNet has helped me tremendously to be in the modern world." See more of Georgina here in our video. 

Gareth Ford WIlliams is Head of Accessibility at BBC Design and Engineering

Gareth Ford Williams, Head of Accessibility, BBC Design and Engineering

“For many disabled people, a simple daily goal is to enjoy the same entertainment options. For video and TV that could mean captioning or audio descriptions, or using the text to speech features in their computer or phone to read out newspapers, magazines or blogs.”

Abbie Osborne, Assessor for AbilityNet

“Education is a vital way for disabled people to achieve their goals. I work with many students who face cognitive impairments such as dyslexia and dyspraxia, which make it difficult for them to organise their thoughts.

"Zotero is one of the most popular free tools I recommend. It takes the pain out of managing references when you’re working on essays and reports and integrates with Microsoft Word to use those references in whichever style you require. It works for Mac and PC, creates an alphabetical list of your sources (bibliography) and can keep track across multiple essays.”

Robin ChristophersonRobin Christopherson, Head of Digital Inclusion, AbilityNet

“Technology helps everyone reach their full potential. Like nothing else on this planet, technology can embrace people’s differences and provide choice – choice to suit everyone and empower them to achieve their goals both at work and at play. On this day, please raise the cheer for technology and digital inclusion, wherever in the world you are.”

Morgan Lobb, Director, Diversity Jobs

“Assistive technology makes a real difference, without spellchecker I’d be doomed!”

Nicola Whitehill

Nicola Whitehill - founder of Facebook Group: Raynauds Scleroderma Awareness

“The internet is a lifeline for me. I'm under house arrest with Raynauds, but I still run a global community in my pyjamas!”

Nigel Lewis, CEO of AbilityNet

“Accessible technology can really help disabled people live their lives fuller, let’s all work together to make tech accessible and inclusive on this #idpd and always.”

Sarah Simcoe - chair of SEED Network, Fujitsu UK and Ireland

“Technology plays an important part in building an environment of accessibility and enablement – the use of tools, software and hardware in enabling disabled talent to fulfill their full potential is key to innovation and business growth.”

Hector Minto, Accessibility Evangelist, Microsoft

“There are so many things: Social media and the cloud's ability to connect us all and find people who can relate to our experience. Text communication and short messages are a great leveler. Images and video convey messages much more quickly. Twitter chats, blogs, Facebook Groups, LinkedIn groups all offer professionals with huge amounts of experience somewhere to share their knowledge. 

"It's all part of the Global Cloud for Good agenda - we need to understand Industrial Revolution 4.0 - the Internet of Things, and automation for example - and our place in it. We need a socially responsible cloud which improves life for everyone and leaves nobody behind.

"Finally I still think eyegaze as a direct control method needs to be tried first for people with physical access issues. The price is changing and the previously held view that it was only for those that had tried everything else is completely out of date but pervasive.”

Bela Gor is a Disability Legal Adviser at Business Disability ForumBela Gor, Disability Legal Adviser, Business Disability Forum

“In twenty years of disability discrimination legislation, the biggest change has been that what was once impossible or unreasonably difficult is now entirely possible - because of technology. Technology means that the way we all live and work has changed immeasurably and 'reasonable adjustments' for disabled people have become the ordinary way of life for everyone because of the technology on our desks, in our pockets and in our homes and workplaces.”

Kate Nash OBE, founder of PurpleSpace community of disability employee networks

"At PurpleSpace we are massive advocates of virtual networking and learning. While our members have a wide range of disabilities, the accessibility features built into smartphones, tablets and PCs mean that we can keep in touch and share career development opportunities on an equal level regardless of the different ways that we access technologies."

Ed Holland leads Driven MediaEdward Hollands, founder of Driven Media UK

“I use lots of assistance software to over come my spelling and grammar issues to look more professional as a founder. I don't write anything without Grammarly now. It's like having my own copywriter! Anyone who is dyslexic should definitely get it.”

How can AbilityNet help you make the most of tech?

AbilityNet staff gain national volunteer management qualification

AbilityNet staff have completed a national qualification in volunteer management to support their work with a network of over 8,000 volunteers with IT skills. This will help them support the continued growth of the volunteer network, who help meets the IT needs of charities and disabled people. Volunteer Administrator Josie Ray and Advice and Information Officer Alex Barker have both been awarded the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) Certification.

“It made sense to study for this qualification as AbilityNet works closely with volunteers” said Alex. "We have a UK-wide team of volunteers who provide home visits for disabled people in the community. They are all CRB/Disclosure checked and can help with all kinds of technical issues, from installing broadband and removing viruses to setting up new software and backups. We also have a network of IT professionals who provide IT support to charities, including web design, databases and troubleshooting and helping to reduce costs and improve services. ”

Volunteering manager Anne Stafford said “It is important to AbilityNet that we deliver high standards & our volunteers are important members of our team. I am pleased that our staff have the opportunity to demonstrate their professionalism in volunteer engagement.”

More information:

Mind the Digital Gap: AbilityNet proposes new digital inclusion strategy

In our increasingly digital self-service economy technology now dominates shopping, entertainment, work and communication, as well as citizenship itself, but age and disability are barring people from full participation. Organisations like AbilityNet, Go ON UK and its disability focused partner, Go ON Gold, are making great strides to close the gap between the computer literate and the technologically disenfranchised, but the gulf is wider than that. 

AbilityNet’s new digital inclusion strategy ‘Mind the Digital Gap’ looks at the obstacles faced by the huge numbers of people who struggle to use digital technologies that are badly designed and just don't meet their needs. AbilityNet believes that we urgently need to recognise the social and economic costs of this digital gap, and identify clear actions to begin closing it.

Mind the Digital Gap logoThe strategy was launched at the House of Commons on 21 November at a reception hosted by Anne McGuire MP, Shadow Minister for Disabled People. It calls for better design practices through implementing user-focused testing at all stages of the design of digital systems (rather than relying on post-hoc accessibility checks).

AbilityNet urges those who commission and build online services, operating systems and digital devices (whether business, government or third sector) to put a user-centred approach at the heart of the design process. The strategy also proposes tax incentives to promote inclusive design, closer partnerships between business and other sectors and a commitment to embed inclusive design at all levels of professional design education.

AbilityNet CEO Nigel Lewis says it's time to change how we design and deliver inclusive digital systems:

"For too long the debate about accessibility has focused on issues that are specific to disabled people, but testing a website after it has been built, or pursuing legal action to ensure that every website includes alt-tags for people who use a screen reader, just isn't working.

“There is a much more important strategic issue at stake and we need a new approach that goes beyond what we currently think of as ‘Accessibility’. To close that gap, it’s imperative that business, government and the third sector work together."

AbilityNet patron and chair of Go ON UK Martha Lane Fox agrees and believes that in addition to making design practices more inclusive we need to focus equipping people with the skills they need to participate in the digital age:

"Both Go ON UK and AbilityNet are working on building digital skills to enable everyone to benefit as much as possible from available technology."

The full strategy is available for download on the AbilityNet website.


Anne McGuire MP and Nigel Lewis of AbilityNet at the launch of AbilityNet's Mind the Digital Gap, House of Commons, November 2012'

Shadow Minister for Disabled People Anne McGuire with AbilityNet CEO Nigel Lewis at the reception at the House of Commons.

See more pictures from the event on Flickr

Web guidelines set for makeover, enabling better mobile and web access for disabled users

It’s a mobile-first world. The global web content accessibility guidelines WCAG are being updated to make sure that sites and apps are now inclusive for all users on the go, including disabled people. This post is based on an article which first appeared in E-Access Live, written by editor Tristan Parker.

New guidelines to focus on mobile access, vision impairment and learning disabilities

The first public draft of an update to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) has been released, with an increased focus on mobile content, users with low vision, and users with cognitive and learning disabilities.

The current guidelines – WCAG 2.0 – are seen by many as a benchmark for web accessibility. WCAG 2.0 is widely used by authorities and organisations seeking to review websites, and to make and keep them accessible for users with disabilities. For example, the Society of IT Management (Socitm) uses WCAG 2.0 to test the accessibility of UK council websites in its annual Better Connected review.

The public working draft of the update, WCAG 2.1, seeks to build on the existing guidelines, adding in new recommendations for those creating and designing web content.

WCAG2.1: By mid-2018

WCAG 2.1 is being developed by the Accessibility Guidelines Working Group (AGWG), a sub-group of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). WAI is part of the much larger World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) - an international voluntary standards community founded by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web.

Judy Brewer, director of the web accessibility Initiative at W3C, told e-Access Bulletin about some of the new measures which would be in WCAG 2.1 - includes an extension of requirements for mobile device access.

person using braille computer

Brewer said: “Research, tools and awareness in the areas of accessibility for people with cognitive and learning disabilities, and for people with low vision, have been increasing in recent years, and we are updating WCAG 2.1 to reflect this.”

The next steps are for AGWG to review and respond to public feedback, and make changes for new versions of the WCAG 2.1 draft. The draft will continue to be reviewed and evolve throughout 2017, with further testing in early 2018. “The goal is to finalise [the draft WCAG 2.1] as a W3C recommendation (a web standard) by mid-2018,” Brewer said.

Have your say on new web accessibility guidelines WCAG2.1

Speaking about W3C’s aim for organisations to begin implementing the WCAG 2.1 draft – and upcoming final version – Brewer called on readers to help get the message out: “There are many things that you can help with, starting with helping to spread the word of the update under development. Then, eventually, spreading the word that there’s an updated standard, encouraging people to implement it, and to adopt and reference it in policies that they have an opportunity to impact.”

Public feedback on the draft officially closed on March 31, but Brewer confirmed that comments received after that will still be useful. Feedback on the draft can be emailed to the following address: public-agwg-comments@w3.org.

Next: WCAG3.0 to embrace the ‘internet of things’

A longer-term ‘3.0’ update to WCAG is also being worked on by AGWG’s ‘Silver Task Force’, explained Brewer: “The [Task Force] are initially focusing on improvements in terms of usability of the guidelines themselves, but may also look at expanding the scope to encompass technologies that are converging on the web, such as digital publishing or the Internet of Things. The goal is to produce a very flexible set of guidelines that can adapt even better to evolving technology and user needs.”

More information

Charities are creating fantastic tech for good innovations, let's get even more ideas out there!

Digital technology is the most powerful tool for social innovation that we have ever had. Yet despite its undeniable impact on all aspects of our lives, and the growing momentum of the UK’s ‘tech for good’ movement, its potential still remains largely untapped by established charities.

But, well-designed tech for good should help existing nonprofits better serve their communities, drive down costs and free up employees’ time to focus on the work that really matters. It presents a huge and exciting opportunity to reach more people and deliver greater impact.

a group of people around boardroom table working on ideas for Safelives project

Through Fuse, our digital accelerator for nonprofits, we support charities to research, build and integrate tightly-focused digital products on an iterative and collaborative basis with their service users. We also run a Digital Fellowship for charity CEOs and trustees, which helps build their confidence and understanding to become leaders of the sector’s digital transformation. This is through a hands-on action learning programme, culminating in a product design sprint.

We have seen that the reach, networks and reputation of established charities makes them extremely well-placed to accelerate the speed of tech for good development. For example, last year's Tech4Good Awards winner, Wayfindr (from the Royal Society for Blind Childer and digital products studio UsTwo), evolved rapidly from being a prototype wayfinding product for people with sight loss, into a certified open standard for audio navigation. It is now being used and tested across the UK in multiple sectors, after it was conceived two years ago. 

Jointly, an app created by Carers UK in 2015, working with the CAST team, is now used by some of the UK's 6.5 million carers in Britain to help manage their role. One in eight adults cares, unpaid, for family and friends. The app can help them to co-ordinate their caring with others. What’s more, the process of developing Jointly catalysed a new strategy at Carers UK, which places digital at the heart of providing 21st century support for carers.

Our 2016 programme graduates are already showing promising progress and improving lives: Breast Cancer Care’s community support app, 'BECCA', was created last August and has already supported over 1,100 women to adjust to life after breast cancer.

Following their Digital Fellowship experience, the team at National Ugly Mugs (another former Tech4Good Awards winner) has grown to better understand and use the language and methodologies of development, such as managing a product build directly on GitHub, the code repository used by most programmers; while Quaker Social Action put their learnings about design processes and working with developers into action in the creation of their new website.

cartoon girl pointing brightly lit inspiration lightbulb

Senior leaders at some of our other Fellowship organisations, such as SafeLives (pictured above: domestic violence charity SafeLives works on digital projects) , ARA and Wales Co-op are now part of a growing tribe of sector advocates using tech in service delivery (see this more detailed profile on Diabetes UK for another example). Like Jointly before them, they have ma de digital a core part of the strategic plans and have recognised the opportunity it presents to fundamentally redesign their engagement with beneficiaries.

We believe the digital revolution gives us a chance to empower people and their communities to lead by supporting vital community organisations to respond to this dramatically changing context.

At a time when the sector is under increasing pressure from rising demand and decreasing funds, it is more urgent than ever to build digital capacity in charities, so that they can harness tech for good to make their services more effective, sustainable and scalable. 

Want more? Check out CAST's article on 6 tenets of tech for good

Authored by Ellie Hale, Associate at CAST, which supports organisations in digital development.  

Ellie leads CAST’s Digital Fellowship, supports on the Fuse accelerator and co-organises regular community meetups including Tech for Good London and NetSquared London.

Got a great tech/ digital project which is focused on social good? Enter AbilityNet's Tech4Good Awards NOW.

Here's how government can help disabled people in a digital world

A new report confirms that there's been twenty long years of legislation and very little action on the part of the government when it comes to helping disabled people in the UK get equal breaks. Let’s start with the easy steps the government can take that will make a massive impact.

What the report says

The newly published report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) titled 'Disability report: Being disabled in Britain' has clearly outlined that very little progress has being made in the UK over the past two decades. Things are still very challenging for people with disabilities and, in many cases, getting worse.

The report highlights concerns in areas including:

  • A lack of equal opportunities in education and employment
  • Barriers to access to transport
  • Health services and housing
  • The persistent and widening disability pay gap
  • Deteriorating access to justice
  • Welfare reforms significantly affecting the already low living standards of disabled people.young woman sat at laptop looking frustrated

David Isaac, chair of the EHRC, said: “This evidence can no longer be ignored. Now is the time for a new national focus on the rights of the thirteen million disabled people who live in Britain.

They must have the same rights, opportunities and respect as other citizens … We cannot, and must not, allow the next twenty years to be a repeat of the past.”

What the government can easily do today to help disabled people

This report tells us nothing new – although it does serve the valuable purpose of throwing into stark relief the plight of disabled people in the UK today. People who find it so difficult to get the same breaks as everyone else in these already challenging times.

A recent 5 live interview gave me a very public opportunity to re-emphasise my favourite theme - that the tech of today has the potential to empower everybody, regardless of any disability or impairment they may have, to effectively level the playing field and give everyone the same opportunities to reach their full potential – but only if developers and employers make this possible through inclusive design and practice.

Click the link above to hear it, or see the attached transcript.

Tech can be made inclusive and allow people to use it whatever their particular needs might be. So many of AbilityNet’s factsheets and wide range of disability and tech webinars describe simple adjustments that can help people in education, at home and at work.

And many more of our tech blog posts and articles highlight built-in solutions to everyday tech (such as Siri on the Mac and 9 other simple fixes that will make your life easier and Dyslexic student's top 3 tech hacks to improve grades), as well as the potential of cutting-edge tech to change the lives of disabled people tomorrow (such as Could Microsoft’s in-car AI for driverless vehicles make us all safer and more equal? or Reaching out with your mind - a new age of thought-controlled robotics empowers people with disabilities).

So many developments have happened over the last twenty years, and the pace of progress is showing no signs of slowing.

All that remains to help disabled people to well and truly get on-track, as I said in my 5 live interview, is for people to “Get with the programme”.

Getting with the programme – with a little (make that 'a lot') help from the government

As I outlined in my open letter to the government drafted for Global Accessibility Awareness Day last May, and have reiterated many times since in interviews and articles, it’s well past time for the government to start enforcing their own legislation with regards to digital accessibility.

Inaccessible software, websites and apps are just one small part of the problems that disabled people face in the UK today – but with digital being so central to everyone’s lives, education and employment opportunities, without this vital accessibility we might as well go back to barring people with wheelchairs or babies in buggies from entering every second building in their town or city.

In these virtual buildings of the internet age lie the potential knowledge, hopes, health, wealth and aspirations of disabled people across the UK – and the government is doing nothing ‘on the ground’ to help. For this reason the last twenty years have seen little progress and, in many cases, we’re regressing instead.

Calling on the government to enforce the law

The EHRC report calls on the UK, Scottish and Welsh Governments to place a new national focus on disability equality, so that the rights of disabled people are fully realised, and also to deliver improvements in their experience and outcomes.

Isaac continues: “This report should be used as a call to arms. We cannot ignore that disabled people are being left behind ... Britain must be a fair and inclusive society in which everyone has equal opportunities to thrive and succeed.”

I agree with the EHRC’s findings and my call is a simple one - and one that might baffle some people as to why it needs to be said at all - government: please start enforcing the law.

man in wheelchair struggling with steps

You’ll have to read the article accompanying my letter to appreciate the numerous and very valid reasons for government to start doing its job.

In essence it boils down to it being as easy as falling off a log to test a website or app for inaccessibility, that fining organisations for non-compliance will have a very significant and immediate effect (especially if fines get ever-bigger the longer the issues remain unaddressed), and that it frankly shouldn’t be the responsibility of disabled individuals to have to take organisations to court.

Should disabled people, currently being permanently robbed of essential life-choices by employers and developers who have never felt the sting of legal consequences, be afforded as much consideration as motorists temporarily robbed of a parking space by someone staying a few minutes over-time on a meter? I’d say they deserve as much consideration – if not a whole lot more.

So, dear government, where are the traffic wardens of the internet?


Deaf film student, James, reveals the keys to his communication

James Blake is a film student at City College Brighton. James is deaf. He features here in part three of the Me, Myself & IT series made by City College students in collaboration with AbilityNet. In the series, students talk to disabled peers about the ways they communicate and make the most of tech at college and in their free time. From retro gaming, to Google Keep. the series features tech hacks and solutions for students and beyond. 

The ways I love to communicate:

"I can't hear anything at all, so I use Skype or Facetime to contact other people who can do sign language, so we can chat. At college I have a student support worker who translates any instructions and so on from my tutor.  Subtitles really help me understand what's being said on TV and 'm always texting and emailing. A lot of people would perhaps mime what they want to say, but I prefer to talk to people via email and text." 

You might also be interested in

See the full Me, Myself & IT series here. 

Are you a university student who needs help with getting the right technology/ assistance with tech to get the best results? Check out our DSA assessment pages

More tech resources for people with hearing loss.

The main reason why most web homepages are inaccessible and how to change this with an accessible carousel

Lots of websites still have a carousel feature on the homepage - ie, a box featuring scrolling slides highlighting the latest/ most interesting content on the site.

The problem is that most web developers and designers don’t make carousels accessible, so a whole range of people - from those using screen readers, to those with motor difficulties, will struggle as soon as they arrive on a site, and often click away in frustration.

If you want to cater for a wider audience, AbilityNet’s senior accessibility and usability expert, Alladin Elteira, recently gave some great advice on accessible carousels in our webinar. Of those who tuned in, 91% said they found the session useful. You’ll find the video and tips below covering:

  • Creating accessible carousels for keyboard users

  • Creating accessible carousels for screen readers and voice over equipment

  • Creating accessible carousels for users with cognitive impairments


1 The first rule of accessible carousels is, don’t have a carousel if you can avoid it! They are generally problematic for a number of different disabilities as well as for accessibility equipment such as screen readers.

2 Secondly, you could hide the carousel, if the information available in it is presented elsewhere.

3 Some people, such as those with motor conditions might not be able to use a mouse. So, all interactive features of a carousel should be accessible/ reachable using the tab keys on the keyboard. This includes clickable images, the pause and play and the numbers - ie 1, 2, 3 - which are sometimes used to click from one slide to another.

4 Users who have low vision or cognitive impairments may get confused by quickly moving content which updates automatically, which many carousels have. It’s advisable to implement a pause button, or better still to make sure the carousel doesn’t update automatically. 

s screen shot of a carousel in automatic motion from The Times newspaper website

5 Ensure the visual focus indicator (normally the arrow on screen which indicates where the mouse is) works with tab keys too.

6 If there is no tab focus, a designer can use the tabindex attribute, which makes elements that aren't accessible using the tab key, easier to use for keyboarders.

7 Make sure the carousel is not using a keyboard trap, ie, that people using a keyboard rather than a mouse don’t get stuck in the page of a carousel without being able to get out of it.

8 Screen readers often have big issues with carousels. It’s good practice to inform screenreader users that they’re within a carousel, including when they’re at the beginning and end of a carousel. Most sites currently don’t.

9 Use Aria Hidden to hide slides 2 and 3 while someone is on/ reading slide 1, or vice versa. Otherwise the screenreader will just read through all the information on the series of slides in one go - this can become very confusing for a user/ listener.

10 Labels, buttons, the ‘next’ and ‘previous’ buttons, 'play' and 'pause' buttons, headings, links that open in a new window, images and so on should have descriptive labels / equivalent script alternatives, as well as be accessible using the tab keys.


Useful links for more information


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How merging minds with computers could help disabled people

The ultimate way to use a computer is by thought alone – you think it and it happens. While comprehensive brain control is some way off, today’s tech is already pretty mind-blowing and the thought-controlled tech of tomorrow has the backing of billionaires.

The rise of brain-computer interfaces

It's long been the goal of both the military and assistive-tech manufacturers to enable computers to be controlled by thoughts alone. Back in the mid-nineties at AbilityNet we were shown a headband which was purported to read brainwaves and control the mouse on-screen.

Elon Musk is one of several billionaires known to be developing mind control interfaces

The headband had a number of sensors that attached to the forehead, but in reality we strongly suspected the electronic signals these sensors picked up were mostly governed by energetic facial muscle gymnastics than anything our brains were thinking.

We soon learned to contort our faces in certain ways to make the arrow progress up, down or across the screen in the vague direction we’d intended. A successful click was achieved by a concerted effort to think “click” but again was probably more to do with the intense furrowing of the brows than any brainwaves we were generating.

Nevertheless this solution was used very successfully, if very slowly, by people with no other means of controlling a computer. For users able to combine this tech with the incredibly expensive and often temperamental eye-tracking technology of the day, it was even more effective.

Fast-forward a few years and we see a positive proliferation of brain-computer interfaces – many of which are being used to help people with paralysis control their environment, as I outlined in my recent post on a new age of thought-controlled robotics.

While tech billionaires like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos can have lots of fun developing and driving giant robotic suits (as we see below), the ability to do away with the need for manual control of not only robotic helpers but how we interface with technology in its broadest sense is a goal well worth pursuing.

The century of the cyborgs

For several years we’ve been able to peer into the human brain and understand much of its activity – as we see here in this video demonstrating how, using an MRI scanner, researchers at Berkeley can actually reconstruct the movie someone is watching from a brainscan alone.

However, if we want a seamless connection with computers, their processing power and knowledge, we need to be able to control technology with our thoughts. The dream of adding to our own brain all the power and potential of artificial intelligence and the internet is an awesome one for some – but it’s a dream that another tech billionaire, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, hopes to hasten into reality.

According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, Musk is heavily investing in a brain-computer interface venture called Neuralink. The project is centred on developing devices that can be implanted in the brain - with the ultimate objective of enabling human beings to ‘merge’ with software and enable man’s cognitive abilities to keep pace with ever-faster advancements in artificial intelligence. This is the ‘cyborg’ (or cybernetic organism) so familliar in science-fiction.

Over the last few months Musk has often referred to the need for more sophisticated interfaces, hinting at the existence of Neuralink. Recently he told a crowd in Dubai: “Over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence,” adding: “it's mostly about the bandwidth, the speed of the connection between your brain and the digital version of yourself, particularly output."

The benefits of having such ‘brain extensions’ are truly breathtaking - if still a long way off. For now, however, we’ve quite enough tech to get our heads around. Advances in brain-computer interfaces still continue apace.

Ever-better brain-computer connections

In recent months we’ve seen several announcements of advances in technology which could lead us to believe that Musk’s vision may be more than idle fancies.

These include thought-controlled software that can type at the speed of the average one-finger typist and developments in mind-reading computers that can translate thoughts directly into words.


Thus, while we may still be some way away from a cyborg future where our every thought is interpreted by the brain-implants we have embedded in our heads and our every wished command is acted upon with the swiftness of silicon (or possibly sub-atomic quanta), we have certainly come a long way from that first headband.

In the same way that interacting with computers with everyday natural language is not only helping people with disabilities, but is soon set to become second-nature to everyone (possibly supplanting the internet as we know it), we will one day take for granted that those who need it most will be talking directly to their technology through the power of their minds alone.


Why retro gaming is better for physically disabled people

Naomi McAdam is a gaming student at City College Brighton. She’s passionate about game design and uses a whole range of tech to help her deal with her spinal quadriplegia level C3. From the text-to-speech apps built into her phone to touch screens and her tablet, tech is a key part of her college success.

The tech I love, by Naomi McAdam

1 Speech-to-text
I use speech-to-text on my mobile phone all the time, it's really, really helpful. I use it for texts, emails and especially for work. It's much easier than writing.

2 Touch screens
Typing on a touch screen is 10 times easier than pressing buttons because I have no physical strength in my fingers. So pushing on a button like with the old Nokias was freaking impossible!

3 A tablet
I use Photoshop a lot because I'm an artist, so using a tablet is extraordinarily helpful for me instead of using loads and loads of paper.

My tech wish

Although her tech gives her the power she needs every day, there are plenty of things Naomi is hoping to see in the shops soon.

“With video game technology, I use big controllers that have got massive buttons, but obviously you can only use those controllers for retro gaming now. You can't use them for say, a PS4. There's been nothing recent made, that I know of, that's been made for disabled people to game with.

“Back in early 90s, Nintendo and Atari made these big big controllers that my father went out and got for me especially to play Zelder or Mario. They stopped making them because of the lack of demand.”

Thanks to Naomi and the film students at City College Brighton for working with us on this collaboration. You can see the full series, here, including Hugo, who is dyslexic and James, who is deaf.


If you're a university student who has a disability and you'd like help with tech, we might be able to help, here