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

Get less fake news: The secret of making your favourite articles and breaking news come to you

Fantastic articles and blog posts go up on the AbilityNet website every week, and you undoubtedly follow news and a wide range of interests on a number of other websites. Well you can have all this digital-goodness come direct to you without visiting a single site and also be less subject to other people’s preferences or agenda.

Taking Facebook at face value

While many people already have their news served to them in their Twitter stream or Facebook feed, what you receive in these cases can often be a very skewed view of what’s really going on.

We’ve all heard the rumours that Facebook helped Trump win the election by featuring fake news stories and we all need to be aware that getting our information through social media is subject to bias or over-emphasis on memes that could be completely untrue, but nevertheless pushed to the top due to the number of shares or likes they receive.

Anyone with an iPhone (other models are available) might be familiar with the news app that asks you to tap on topics you find interesting and serves up news items and articles it thinks you will like. This approach is based upon similar algorithms and a certain amount of human curation, and while not subject to the same social pressures that can so radically impact Twitter or Facebook, can still influence what you receive.

newsify app image

The really special secret of RSS

For years now it’s been possible to have content from your favourite websites sent to you automatically whenever the site is updated. RSS (or Really Simple Syndication) is nothing new and yet many people aren’t aware of it or just how useful it can be.

The process is more manual to set up than just tapping areas of interest as you do in a news app, or following certain people or companies in Facebook. However, once set up, what you get is just what you’ve asked for – no more or less.

Using the RSS link on a web page, or by simply searching for that site in the apps search facility, you are able to subscribe to that site’s ‘feed’ of news. It might be for every article that site publishes or just for one author or subject. On the AbilityNet website, for example, you can subscribe to every article or just ones written by me, for example.

The app then regularly checks the websites that you have subscribed to and any new articles are downloaded for reading at your leisure (even off-line).


Reading made easy

Within the app you can typically choose your preferred text size, style and colour to make articles clear and easy to read. And one last, huge bonus of receiving your news this way is that these apps strip out ads.

Receiving information that is clear, uncluttered and easy-to-read means that RSS is the best-kept secret which only you (and several million people with disabilities who much prefer to receive their news this way) know. Welcome to the club!


Good apps for RSS

There are many apps that can collect your favourite articles for you. I use an app called Lire on my phone which is particularly accessible with VoiceOver, but there are loads to choose from.

Other popular RSS reader apps:

Newsify for iOS

Feeddler for iOS

Feedly for Android

GReader for Android

Infographic: The Growth of The Autonomous Car Market

A recent blog post by Robin Christopherson about the impact autonomous cars could have on the lives of disabled people prompted a lot of interest, including a great infographic sent to us by Daniel Dixon of GetOffRoad that illustrates the rapid growth in the autonomous car market.

A text-only version of this graphic is also available.

This infographic has a text version available using a link in the body of the article

EVENT: Implementing the Accessible Information Standard in a digital NHS,London, 28 February 2017

The Accessible Information Standard is a requirement for any provider of NHS informationMany disabled people find that communicating with large institutions like the NHS can be difficult, frustrating or at times impossible.  AbilityNet is hosting a workshop to consider the role that digital technology plays in the NHS Accessible Information Standard.

  • 11 am – 3 pm, Tuesday 28 February
  • British Computer Society (BCS)
  • 5 Southampton St, London WC2E 7HA
  • Sponsored by PanLogic

Published in July 2015 the Accessible Information Standard (AIS) became mandatory for all NHS and social care organisations including NHS Trusts, Foundation Trusts and GP practices in July 2016.

NHS England is currently reviewing the implementation of the AIS. Ahead of the consultation, which closes on 10 March 2017, AbilityNet is bringing together patient groups, NHS practitioners and the digital accessibility community for a half-day, interactive event to:

  • Understand where digital accessibility fits within patient communications
  • Share the results of disabled user-testing on the technology used by GPs and the lessons learned
  • Learn first-hand from disabled people’s experiences and identify best practice for the design and delivery of digital communications that meet the AIS.

Register now

Numbers are strictly limited for this event so please use the booking form on the website to book now.

Artificial intelligence vision app helps the blind to hear the world

AIPOLY was a winner at CES 2017

The annual massive techfest that is CES in Las Vegas has not long finished and winner of the accessibility category, new to 2017, is a revolutionary app that uses AI to help recognise the world for people with low or no vision.

AIPOLY Vision – giving the world a voice

On the face of it AIPOLY is like many other apps that can recognise objects using a smartphone’s camera, and then speak out what it ‘sees’ to give blind people, like myself, rich information about what is around us. Here is a short video of AIPOLY in action.

Not just another object recognition app

I’ve previously written and demonstrated about the magic that is Talking Goggles and still use apps such as this all the time to help recognise products on shelves in a supermarket or read the text of a menu in a restaurant.

All these apps, however, need an internet connection to work. The brains of the system aren’t found on the phone but rather up in the cloud somewhere. This is fine so long as you have a good connection, but as soon as you’re out of signal you’re in the dark.

AIPOLY is the first app that stores the smarts within the app so no internet is needed. What’s more it actually learns from what it sees and, when a connection is available, it sends its newly recognised objects up to the cloud to make future updates of the app even smarter.

For these reasons AIPOLY snagged best of class in the CES innovation awards.

Robin is shown wearing a Google Glass heasdsetLightning-fast help wherever you are

AIPOLY is quick. It analyses the camera image three times a second and, as we see in the video above, it’s fast to feed back what it thinks it sees. It doesn’t always get it right but its right enough of the time to make it incredibly useful - and it’s learning.

Combining such a useful app with a head-mounted camera would make AIPOLY a winner for me. Having a camera with this kind of intelligent object and text recognition, observing and analysing whatever it is I’m looking at, is a dream I’ve had ever since the advent of Google Glass ushered in a new era of raised awareness of our surroundings.

And of course this smart object recognition doesn’t stop with helping the blind to see – in fact we’re just lucky beneficiaries of the massive mainstream initiative to develop more and more intelligent machine learning to better understand big data. Good luck to them.

Related links

[Free Webinar] Virtual Reality, Disability and Inclusive Design

Google Cardboard is a low cost VR headset that helped kickstart interest in the technologyBuilding on Google's low cost Cardboard headsets, as well as big ticket names such as Oculus Rift and Microsoft's Hololens, Virtual Reality (VR) has quickly moved from geeky buzzword to mainstream technology. It is already widely used by estate agents, holiday companies and many other commercial applications - but what can it do for disabled people?

  • Free Webinar: Virtual Reality, Disability and Inclusive Design
  • 1pm, Thursday 26 January 2017

Senior Accessibility Consultant at AbilityNet, Raphael Clegg-Vinell, offers an introduction to VR and looks at some of the ways it could transform the lives of people with disabilities. It's already being used by people with visual impairments, strokes and dementia and could have life-changing possibilities for people with many other disabilities.

The webinar will be of interest to anyone with an interest in how technology can help people with disabilities, as well as anyone developing VR applications. It does not require any existing knowledge of VR and it will include an opportunity to ask questions.

Register Now

More about VR and disability

Forthcoming AbilityNet Webinars

Webinar Archive

How to get free expert advice on technology and disability

Twelve million people in the UK have some type of disability, from cerebral palsy or dyslexia to arthritis. Every week, AbilityNet deals with scores of queries from people who want to know how they can make the most of their smartphone, iPad or computer, or which assistive tech might work for them.

Alex Barker is our experienced advice and information officer and runs our free helpline. Via email, Facebook and Twitter, Alex can identify simple adjustments to computer systems, laptops and smartphones – and can also offer advice on which tech to choose. Alex himself does not have all his fingers and says that knowing how to use a computer in the right way for him, has transformed his life. 

Whatever the query, Alex often tells people to take a look My Computer My Way – this amazing free resource shows you how to make small adjustments to your computer, tablet or smartphone. It covers all the accessibility options in every mainstream computer system and can help with vision, hearing, physical and congnitive disabilities.

You can contact Alex on our free helpline on 0800 269 545 or email him at enquiries@abilitynet.org.uk

How changing the settings on your iPad and iPhone can help people with tremors and other dexterity difficulties

The latest version of the software that drives iPads and iPhone (iOS10) offers significant improvements for people with tremors due to conditions such as Parkinsons, Cerebral Palsy or old age. These changes can be found in the accessibility settings and can help anyone with dexterity issues take their day to day computer usage to a whole new level.

One size definitely doesn’t fit all

Everyone’s wonderfully different. In this mobile-first world of extreme computing we all know how important inclusive design is for every single user. And settling for a vanilla experience on your device will waste a lot of the potential it has to be inclusive for you – especially ‘on the go’

Like many other people with disabilities, I have always been deeply touched and truly grateful for the work that Apple has put into ensuring that its devices and software are as accessible and inclusive as possible. If you’ve never been in the Accessibility settings of your iPhone then I’d strongly recommend taking a peek now.

Screenshot of Apple General Settings showing ACcessibility menu item

As a blind person I’m able to use my iPhone by turning on VoiceOver and a quick glance down the other accessibility settings show us that people with a wide range of vision, hearing, motor and reading difficulties are catered for very extensively.

Touch accommodations

New in iOS 10, there are now some incredibly powerful options that can be customised to make a smartphone even easier to use for people with a tremor or other dexterity difficulties due to Parkinsons, Cerebral Palsy or old age.

For this group of users it is often incredibly difficult to do a simple concise tap that is swift, on-target and is not interpreted as a series of taps or swiping gestures.

The first two settings in the touch accommodations section aim to resolve this first issue; where you go for a single tap and end up with many.

screenshot of apple accessibility settings menu showing Touch Accommodations menu item

Hold duration

The ‘hold duration’ is the length of time you must touch the screen before a touch is recognised and processed by the phone.

screenshot of Touch Accommodations menu settings showing hold duration options

Starting at 0.1s, here you can set the minimum time your fingertip needs to be touching the screen before a tap is sent. This will allow you to fine-tune the phone’s response so that tremulous butterfly-light taps aren’t constantly activating items or sending keystrokes from the on-screen keyboard. Only more definite and intentional touches are processed.

Ignore repeat

The partner setting to the hold duration option above is ‘Ignore repeat’. Here you can tell the phone to discount multiple taps in quick succession in favour of more deliberate taps that are more spaced out.

Set the minimum duration in which multiple touches are treated as a single touch. Starting at 0.1s you can increase this value until all but your initial tap is ignored.

Tap assistance

Often it is very hard for users with dexterity difficulties to ‘tap and go’ without dragging their finger across the glass. Try doing a swipe on your phone now using the smallest possible movement and you’ll see the problem; even a few millimetres will turn a tap into a swipe.

Enabling tap assistance will allow any single finger gesture simply to be treated as a tap.

There are two choices here; use either the initial or final touch location as the point of the tap. In other words, should the phone consider the starting or ending point of the swipe as the position on the screen where the single one-finger tap was made.

For some users the first place they put their finger might be closest to where they were intending to tap, whilst for others the fact that their finger is now resting on a surface makes it easier to slide it to where they want the tap to be, at which point they would lift it off to send the tap.

Leading the way to inclusion

There’s no doubt in my mind that Apple are continuing to show how accessibility, or inclusive design, can be done well. Whilst there are third-party solutions that do something similar to the above, Apple have done the research and development required to build it right into the operating system in iOS 10.

With a few exceptions (I’m looking at you; wearables running AndroidWear - and you; almost every smart TV) we’re living in a time where the majority of devices and operating systems are benefiting from similar levels of investment and commitment

Things are certainly headed in the right direction. In the coming years we should be optimistic about an ever-greater choice of inclusive products. We’re touching the future and, personally, I think it feels good.

Useful links

  • Apple’s excellent accessibility page – www.apple.com/accessibility
  • My Computer My Way - AbilityNet's free guide the accessibility settings in every laptop, desktop and computer