One week to enter the Tech4Good Awards

There is just one week left to submit your entries into the UK’s foremost inclusive technology awards – celebrating the amazing people who use tech to make the world a better AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards 2019 logo with AbilityNet and BT logosplace. 

The Tech4Good Awards, now in their ninth year, are organised by AbilityNet and BT and look to recognise the organisations and individuals who create and use technology to improve the lives of others. 

The awards are free to enter, and this year’s nine categories include those for young pioneers, ageing society, inclusive design, and diversity. Past winners include the world’s smallest farming robot, a device that saves water and a robot that goes to school for children with disabilities or long-term health conditions. 

Andy Wales, Chief Digital Impact and Sustainability Officer, BT, said: 

“‘BT is keen to find and support disruptive new technologies that improve people’s everyday lives. A new world is being shaped and created by the rapid acceleration of technologies, and we need a culture in the UK that celebrates tech for good entrepreneurs, who are at the forefront of making sure no one is left behind. And it’s even more exciting when these new ideas come from young people.”

Mark Walker, Head of Marketing and Communications at AbilityNet, who organise the awards, said:

“We are so enjoying receiving the entries for this year’s awards. There is such depth and breadth to the ideas, talents and skills that go into making this technology, and the awards are the perfect way to celebrate them.”

“For example, last year’s Connected Society Award was won by Small Robot Company who are on a mission to radically transform how we farm. An excellent example of seeing a problem and harnessing technology to create a win-win solution for all.

“We’re looking forward to discovering the new ideas and recognising those in the country who have been working hard this year to create technological solutions to the challenges that many face.”

Any business, charity, individual or public body in the UK is eligible, and submit their entry by 6pm on 10 May via the Tech4Good Awards website

This year the ever-popular Tech4Good People’s Award, which all shortlisted entries automatically enter, is being powered by Crowdfunder.co.uk. All finalists will be given access to a Crowdfunder campaign which will help them tap into new funding, networks and business development opportunities.

People can nominate themselves or others across nine categories:

  • Accessibility Award – sponsored by Microsoft
  • Ageing Society Award – sponsored by UnLtd
  • BT Young Pioneer Award
  • Connected Society Award – sponsored by Samsung
  • Community Impact Award – sponsored by Lloyds Banking Group and Good Things Foundation
  • Digital Volunteer of the Year Award – sponsored by Do-it Life
  • Inclusive Design Award – sponsored by Scope
  • Tech4Good for Africa Award – sponsored by Comic Relief
  • Tech4Good Diversity Award – sponsored by Nesta

Entries are judged by an expert panel of judges who have worked across the technology, digital and charity sectors and have the job of narrowing down 250+ entries to just 36 finalists. 

The winners will be announced at a glittering ceremony hosted by BT on 17 July at BT Centre – a lively and inspiring occasion for all. 

For more information and to enter go to:  https://www.tech4goodawards.com/enter-now

If you need some inspiration for your entry, watch the recording from our 'How to win a Tech4Good Award?' webinar with contributions and advice from Small Robot Co. and two of our experienced judges.

Support and independence: help yourself with My Computer My Way

Here at AbilityNet our mission is to help to create a world in which digital services are equally accessible to all. An important part of achieving this mission is My Computer My Way, our online resource which provides easy to follow step by step instructions on how to turn on the inbuilt accessibility features on all mainstream computers, laptops, tablets and smartphones. The information is updated regularly by our experts when new features are released so that the support you need is always available. 

We developed My Computer My Way to break down digital barriers, opening up an accessible world of communication, human connection, and the potential to achieve your online goals.  

Sometimes extra support is needed, in which case AbilityNet has a friendly network of ITCanHelp volunteers who provide IT support in the home to older people and disabled people of any age. In these in-person sessions volunteers help to build the client’s confidence in not only using technology but accessing the My Computer My Way resource independently, so that they have a guide to more adaptations in the future. 

Read below to see what one of our volunteers has to say about My Computer My Way…

Meet Lizi, our AbilityNet Administration Manager and ITCanHelp VolunteerPhoto of Lizi

As our Administration Manager at AbilityNet Lizi has an in-depth understanding of our mission for accessibility and the type of support we provide. 

After being a volunteer for two years, Lizi describes the support she provides as varying between setting up printers, providing training for new software programmes or simply supporting a client in becoming a confident computer user. 

With regards to her own confidence with IT and the support she receives as a volunteer, Lizi says:
“the great things about the AbilityNet volunteers is everyone has a really vast knowledge between us that we share with each other”.

In addition to supporting others, AbilityNet volunteers support each other in their growing knowledge and passion for technology. My Computer My Way is a valued part of that process.

“I used My Computer My Way when I visited a lady with Parkinson’s. As a result of the condition she had developed a tremor and was struggling with typing on her computer.”

Did you know 1 in 37 people will be diagnosed with Parkinson’s in their lifetime? A few simple changes to a device can help people with Parkinson’s to stay in control of their technology and achieve their goals. 

My Computer My Way provides a whole section on changing keyboard settings to suit your needs, including how to turn on Filter Keys which stops the repeat keystrokes from occurring when a key is held down for a long time. Lizi activated this feature, which “meant that the client was able to type and the extra letters that were appearing on screen because of the tremor were no longer happening.”

On Thursday 11 April 2019 as part of World Parkinson’s Day this year we held a free webinar providing more insights into the ways technology can be adjusted for users with Parkinson’s.  You can visit the AbilityNet website to access the webinar recording and slide deck for more information

When is support at home needed?

Sometimes, if a client does not feel confident or able to use My Computer My Way, one of our ITCanHelp Volunteers can provide support in person, to work through the problem together. 

Lizi’s client “had been pointed towards My Computer My Way by our Advice and Information Officer over the phone” but “hadn’t understood all of the technology terms that were used on the site”. 

In this case, providing support at home was an invaluable part of making the online world accessible for the client. Lizi tells us: 

“After I had talked her through the steps and she had written her own extra notes she felt a lot more confident and able to use My Computer My Way to look for adaptations in the future.”

Empathy is just as important as expertise in an ITCanHelp volunteer.

We asked Lizi what she believes the biggest benefit of My Computer My Way to be…

“I think that the biggest benefit of My Computer My Way is that it is a reliable and accurate source of information for making changes to features already on your computer. It breaks down the steps and is available for all different operating systems, so it is a much more reliable source then just googling something on the internet. It also gives the user control and independence over adapting their device to make their life easier, with no extra cost”

Find out more:

Trains and boats and brains

  • A CGI image of a brain within a translucent human figureIn 2016-17 there were 348,453 UK admissions to hospital with acquired brain injury (ABI) - 531 admissions per 100,000 
  • In 2016-17 there were approximately 954 ABI admissions per day to UK hospitals – one every 90 seconds
  • ABI admissions in the UK have increased by 10% since 2005-6
  • Men are 1.5 times more likely than women to be admitted for head injury. However, female head injury admissions have risen 23% since 2005-6
  • In 2016-17, there were 132,199 admissions for stroke - an increase of 10% since 2005-6 (one every four minutes)

Information from report by Headway.org.uk

Trains...

Phineas Gage was an American railroad construction foreman from the early 1800's who, as a result of an accident as bizarre as it was horrific, advanced our knowledge of brain function and psychology. Gage had a job as a blaster on the railroads, this involved boring a hole into rock, filling it with blasting powder,  and packing (tamping) sand or clay on top to contain the blast. Tamping was done with a 'tamping iron'; a javelin-shaped metal bar. The story goes that, as Phineas was tamping one of these blast holes, he was distracted by one of his men, he turned to speak which brought his head in-line with the hole, just as the tamping iron sparked, setting off the charge.

A black and white photo of Phineas Gage holding a tamping ironThis next bit is not for the squeamish... (you can skip to the next header) 

The blast sent the tamping rod through the bottom of Gage's jaw, behind his left eye, through the left frontal lobe of the brain and out through the top of his head. Reports from the time stated that Gage was thrown backwards and landed on the ground, convulsing, but within a few minutes spoke and then walked "with little assistance" and sat upright in the cart to ride nearly a mile back to the hotel in town where he was staying. The local doctor was summoned and reported finding Gage sitting in a chair outside the hotel.

...you're safe now

At a time when there was little to no distinction between horrific injury, medical curiosity and what passed as entertainment, Gage gained a fair bit of celebrity for his feat of survival. However, one of the most notable and lasting impacts was the apparent alteration in Gage's behaviour (although it is widely accepted that these have been exaggerated). The doctor who had treated him reported; 

"His contractors, who regarded him as the most efficient and capable foreman in their employ previous to his injury, considered the change in his mind so marked that they could not give him his place again. The equilibrium … between his intellectual faculties and animal propensities, seems to have been destroyed. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom) … his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was "no longer Gage."

...and boats...

On Sunday 7th April the 165th Men's Boat Race was won by Cambridge (The 74th Women's was also won by Cambridge). However, a significant portion of the press coverage this year was focussed around the Cambridge two-seat, former Olympian, Atlantic rower, Marathon runner, and at 46, the oldest person to compete in the boat race; James Cracknell.

Whilst Cracknell's age was one headline, there was also a great deal of press interest in his private life; in particular the recent separation from his wife; Beverly Turner. Turner has been relatively candid about the difficulties she experienced and the reasons for the separation, not least of which she saw as stemming from a brain injury he had received some nine years previously.

In 2010 Cracknell had been taking part in an event to cycle, run, row or swim from LA to New York. He had been riding along the Arizona highway in the early hours of the morning when he was hit by the wing mirror of a tanker travelling at 70 mph. The fact that he was wearing a helmet undoubtedly saved his life and he has since been very vocal about their importance.

...and brains

The force of the impact caused what is referred to as a contretemps injury where the brain is thrown forwards against the inside of the skull like the hammer in a bell. The impact of the brain against the front of the skull resulting in significant bruising and damage to the frontal lobes. The injury not only left Cracknell prone to epileptic fits and with short-term memory loss, but, as with Gage, his personality appeared to change. Turner explained that the doctors treating her husband had warned her that his personality might be on “Planet James for a while … [and] made it sound as if I would be married to a drunk teenager. And they were right.” Cracknell too acknowledged this change; "… often, after seeing friends, I’d wake up with a list of people I’d offended and needed to apologise to." 

Injury often serves to advance our understanding and whereas we can see a muscle move a limb or the direct effects of an organ like a kidney, the brain is much more difficult to observe. Injuries such as the type Gage experienced serve as a starting-point for research and through this we have unlocked some of the processes previously hidden from us. We know, for example that the frontal lobes play a significant role in executive functioning; things such as regulating behaviour and emotions, planning, staying focussed and working memory, to name a few and the observed changes in behaviour in cases such as Gage and Cracknell, would appear to support this. However, we need to be careful saying brain injury is a *cause* of behaviour change. We need to recognise that there is clearly a significant psychological impact of a life-threatening event; do you become more driven, less concerned with the impact of your behaviour on others and more determined to do the things you want to do because you have faced death and lived?

"There's a perception that a brain injury is like a broken leg and it will just get better, but a brain injury will affect you for the rest of your life in a negative way" - James Cracknell quoted in the Cambridge News

How Be My Eyes used the Tech4Good Accessibility Award to grow its vision

The amazing Be My Eyes was the winner of Tech4Good Accessibility Award in 2018, following in the footsteps of previous winners such as Bristol Braille and Barclays Bank. It's isPhoto of a man holding up a smartphone to his eyes with an image of someone else's eyes on the phone display. Be My Eyes, lend your eyes to the blind strapline a highly popular free app that connects people who are blind or have low vision with over one million sighted volunteers or company representatives, who offer assistance through a live video call. 

Alexander Hauerslev Jensen of Be My Eyes explains that winning the Accessibility Award was a key step in the success of the company.

“Winning the Tech4Good Accessibility Award has been incredible," he explained. " Being a part of the Tech4Good Awards allowed us to connect with partners and investors, as well as all sorts of inspiring people who all work to make the world a better and more inclusive place.” 

“After winning the award Be My Eyes has hit several incredible milestones. The community to more than 2 million volunteers, we have more than 125,000 blind and low vision users, and we've secured both Google and Lloyds Banking Group as customers on the Specialised Help Platform." 

So what’s next for Be My Eyes in 2019 and beyond? 

“Our main priority now is to grow and nurture the community, which means getting the word out to even more users around the world who are blind or have low vision, who will find value in the product.” said Jensen.

And what are his final thoughts to others thinking of entering? 

“We would highly recommend participating in the awards - whatever your vision for your next big step they are a great way to connect with other people.”

About the Accessibility Award

This year the Award is sponsored by Microsoft and is open to any individual, business, charity, social enterprise or other public body with a base in the UK. It may refer to the work they do as a whole or one specific project.

The judges are looking for inspiring examples of accessible technologies that help people with disabilities achieve their goals at work, at home or in education. 

You can find out more about this award category and what the judges are looking for on the Tech4Good Awards website.

If you want to take advantage of the wide range of benefits that the AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards winners receive enter the awards now before entries close on Friday 10 May. 
 

Help with your tech - an AbilityNet volunteer offers advice

When an AbilityNet volunteer arrives in your home to help you with your technology you can rest assured they will have extensive know-how. Many come from significant careers in the Information Technology (IT) sector, and bring with them years of experience, as is the case with Myles Pilling.

Our volunteers help older people and disabled people to use technology to achieve their goals at home, at work, in education and online. They do this by assisting people remotely or visiting them in the comfort of their own homes to provide in-person support. Speaking about his experience Myles said: "In volunteering for AbilityNet I have found myself helping mainly older people including those with Macular Degeneration, Parkinson's and stroke survivors. I have helped people who require assistance with developing their access or finding a solution to their problems. Usually it's a case of finding a technological solution that suits their own preferences."

Meet our volunteer Myles

A photo of volunteer Myles, smiling facing the cameraBefore becoming a volunteer for AbilityNet Myles was a special schools teacher for 30 years, then an IT SEN (Special Educational Needs) Adviser for 10 years providing IT hardware and software for pupils with special needs and complex needs. For the last six years he has been running his own business AccessAbility Solutions, has been a County Co-ordinator for AbilityNet's network of volunteers in Wiltshire and Myles is also a Co-director of the British Assistive Technology Association (BATA).

Coming from an IT background many of our volunteers are experts with technology, but they also often learn new things as part of the experience of volunteering. We asked Myles to tell us about some of the technology he enjoys using and has seen change people's lives:

An Amazon Echo Dot, black on a white backgroundAbout smart speakers

"I'm particularly enjoying using smart speakers at the moment. The Echo Dot and Google Mini Home are both affordable and useful, particularly for the visually impaired. The Echo Dot can provide music and books to listen to and with the right setup you can also control your heating and TV with your voice. The Google Home with a Chromecast device attached to your TV makes using Netflix, which has 150 films with audio description, very easy to access."

About virtual assistants

"I'm very impressed by what virtual assistants can now do! Composing an email through your smart phone and using the Google Assistant app it gives instructions throughout the process. Siri, a virtual assistant that is part of Apple's operating system, allows you to perform tasks on your phone, ask questions and get recommendations using your voice. For those with little or no hand function it is essential to be able to control your technology with your voice."

About Orcam MyEye

A man wearing te Orcam MyEye device which clips onto a standard pair of glasses and can recognises every day products "The Orcam MyEye is a very clever device. Maggie, somebody I've helped as a volunteer, says it's the single most useful device she uses as she needs to read the written research she has published during her career. Maggie also says she would not have known about it had an AbilityNet volunteer not told her about it. It is not a cheap solution I'm afraid, but it's worth the money if it allows you to take control back in your life and regain independence."

We recently caught up with Myles and Maggie to find out more about her experience and the support she has received from Myles - watch the video below:

Simple solutions are sometimes better

Myles is a big fan of technology as you can tell, but he recognises simple solutions are sometimes better: "One moment I found especially memorable is when I sourced a three button phone for a blind lady so that she could continue to use the phone she was used to. It is so important to meet the person's preferences, even if it means not using the latest technology. In this case the latest technology would not have helped her and would have made her life more complicated. Having more functions to a phone doesn't make it more functional for some people I have found."

Request help with your technology 

Myles is part of a network of 300+ AbilityNet volunteers that support people across the UK. "It's a pleasure and a privilege to be able to be an AbilityNet volunteer. Such a vital role we play. Not only in making the technology work, but to make it work in a way that the person we're helping wants it to. The human connection we offer is so valued as we understand the needs of the user and find the most appropriate way of solving problems."

If you’d like to use your IT skills to support people you can enquire on our website about becoming an AbilityNet ITCanHelp Volunteer in your local area.

If you or someone you know could benefit from free IT support at home you can request a home visit on our website, call our helpline on 0800 269 545 or email us at enquiries@abilitynet.org.uk.

Free webinar: Smartphone features for people with Hearing Loss

Please note: the date for this webinar has passed - access the webinar recording and slide deck for the presentation from the free expert resources section of our website.


Over the last few years advances in technology have opened up communication options for people with hearing loss and deafness, particularly on smartphones.

AbilityNet and Action on Hearing Loss logosIn an upcoming webinar AbilityNet in partnership with Action on Hearing Loss will show you the latest smartphone features and adaptations that allow people with hearing loss to stay in control of their technology and achieve their goals online.

This webinar will contain useful information for people with hearing loss as well as their friends, families and colleagues. It would also be beneficial for anyone with a professional interest in hearing impairments and assistive technology such as occupational therapists, support workers, etc.

The webinar will last 45 minutes and includes a question and answer session. Those that register for the webinar will receive a recording, even if unable to attend live.

Register for our 'Smartphone features for people with Hearing Loss' webinar now

About the webinar

A smartphone with the home screen displayedDid you know there are 11 million people with hearing loss in the UK? Our webinar starts with some facts to show the importance of the support available from AbilityNet, Action on Hearing Loss and other organisations.

Next we will look at the accessibility features that are readily available in smartphone settings, including live transcribe and baby detectors.

It is possible to connect smartphones to hearing aids - we will share hearing aid compatibility ratings, hearing loop settings and will talk about amplified smartphones.

The webinar will end with a question and answer session with our experts.

Register now

More about technology and hearing loss

Empathy and experience: meet our hearing-impaired IT Volunteer

9 useful apps for people who are deaf or have hearing loss

Note-taking hacks for students with Autism

You can’t escape taking notes during your studies. Whether you’re in a lecture, preparing an assignment or revising for an exam, note-taking abilities are an important part of not only learning, but maintaining a healthy mental wellbeing. According to Studies in Higher Education 95% of disabled students have reported struggling with note-taking

A recent study tells us that some of the challenges university students with autism reported include information processing speed, group work and following lectures. Free, multiplatform and accessible word processors like Google Docs have some great things to offer students looking to overcome these barriers and unlock their full potential. 

Read on to discover the ways Google Docs can help you to create and collaborate with confidence:

Type with your voice

Do you have difficulty transferring your thoughts into the written word? Speech-to-text software can be a real game-changer. The accuracy and ease of Google Doc’s Voice Typing tool - “shockingly accurate" according to Quartz at Work - frees students from the physical effort of typing and allows them to focus on expressing their ideas.

Voice typing can also help to remove the challenges of speed note-taking and prioritising information some students with autism face in lectures. As universities become more inclusive lectures are often recorded for students to review and process at their own pace. Why not create your own transcript of the lecture using voice typing in Google Docs? If you want to you can listen to the recording through your headphones and speak the recording out loud as you do. 

Screen capture of Google Docs Talk to Type in use

Bonus Hack!

Do you ever have flashes of inspiration or things you need to jot down quickly whilst on the go? The handy Google Keep app lets you to take photos, handwrite with digital ink and record audio. You can then integrate notes into Google Docs to flesh out your ideas! Check out this previous instalment in our hack-in-the-box series on Google Keep for more top tips!

Screen capture of Google Keep interface example showing reminders, deadlines and photos

Share documents

Group work can be daunting for all students, but for those living with autism the level of social interaction required can make it particularly stressful. Google Docs offers a solution - students can share files or whole folders to edit together in real-time, from anywhere and on any device. If you have autism, the ability to virtually collaborate on shared work can give you the time you need to think without the stress associated with anything from making eye contact to meeting up in loud and crowded places.

Sharing Google Docs is also a valuable tool for receiving study support whilst maintaining independence and control over your own work. You can send your essay to your tutor, friend or parent for them to edit with feedback, but you remain the owner of the document with complete control over access, visibility and deletion of the file. 

Chatting while you work

In a shared file you don’t need to just rely on comments to communicate with others, you can collaborate over chat too! Having a chat box in the file further helps to make group work more accessible for those with social difficulties as it enables complex discussion without meeting up and avoids the need to connect on social media. 

Choose add-ons to suit you

How people experience autism differs widely, and whilst ASD is not a learning disability, confidence with writing can be affected. Google Docs has plenty of exciting add-ons (many of them free) to assist students in creating notes that are exactly the way they want them to be. Add-ons include spelling and grammar support such as LanguageTool and visually appealing mind-mapping software like MindMeister - all yours for the choosing!

Bonus Hack!

Is the cluttered screen crushing your creativity? Stay focused with Distraction Free Mode for Google Docs! This great extension hides all controls and buttons and lets you focus on the writing. 

Example of Distraction Free Mode on screen

Studying in Higher Education? Support is available...

You don’t have to think of yourself as disabled to be eligible for Disabled Students Allowance (DSA). If you are a UK student with a disability, long-term condition or a specific learning difficulty such as dyslexia you may be eligible for extra support. Specialist hardware, software and one-to-one study support are some of the ways DSA can help you. Check if you’re eligible for DSA now by using our free Higher Education Support Checker.

AbilityNet can help

AbilityNet is a UK charity that helps people to use technology to achieve their goals. If you have questions about disability and technology you can call us on 0800 269 545 or email enquiries@abilitynet.org.uk.

Articles from the Hack in the Box series:

Accelerating towards a disability-friendly driverless future

It’s been a busy few weeks for the driverless car and a future where anyone can get around autonomously, regardless of disability or impairment, feels closer than ever.

Elon’s exciting announcement

Driverless cars streaming along streets near us seem part of a futuristic vision that’s still some way off. A recent clarification regarding a seemingly insignificant component within a popular electric car, however, may put a whole new timeline on that prospect.

After some disquiet on the internet, Tesla’s CEO was recently prompted to provide some clarification on why a camera pointed in towards passengers in the new affordable and much awaited Tesla model was needed. Elon Musk confirmed that the camera located above the Model 3’s rear-view mirror is there for when the car will legally be allowed to work as an autonomous taxi. 

“It’s there for when we start competing with Uber/Lyft,” the CEO wrote on Twitter. “In case someone messes up your car, you can check the video.” 

Photo of dark grey Tesla Model 3

Let’s just digest that tweet for a second. What Musk is saying is that the Tesla Model 3 as it ships in its thousands today is fully capable of autonomous driving and needs no additional hardware – just the flip of some remote software switch somewhere as and when the law gives the green light. At around $35,000 this means that the necessary tech to gather and process the millions upon millions of calculations each second required to navigate safely on city streets, country roads and motorways are now so affordable as to be able to be included by default in a mid-range car that isn’t even allowed to use them in full as yet.

The CEO said that he plans to allow Tesla owners to make extra money from their cars by renting them out as autonomous ride-sharing vehicles. The result, he hopes, is to “dramatically” lower the car’s cost of ownership “to the point where almost anyone could own a Tesla.”

As a blind person, I’m seriously contemplating a future where the purchase of a car might not only make sense given my disability, will enable me to get from A to B with the same levels of convenience and freedom that everyone else has enjoyed for so long, but may actually beef up my bank balance too! What a prospect.

Want a ride in a Waymo?

Another notable story that’s surfaced recently pointing at an autonomous future being closer than we think concerns Google’s spin-off driverless car division; Waymo. Waymo officially launched its first commercial driverless taxi service in the cities surrounding Phoenix, Arizona, in the US late last year. 

Until now, the app that riders use to summon one of Waymo’s self-driving minivans was only available via a private link in an email invitation, but now anyone can download the app from the Google Play Store and add their names to Waymo’s growing waiting list of eager riders. Of course, if you don’t live in those few select cities, you might be waiting a really long time. 

Photo of a white Waymo taxi

So Google isn’t going global with it’s autonomous taxis as yet, but at least its going public. Waymo is essentially opening the flood gates for a torrent of requests to ride in its self-driving cars, with the obvious implication that soon everyone in the Phoenix area (well, Android users anyway) will get the chance. What about iOS users? The app works in iOS, but Waymo says it will need to work out a deal with Apple before it can make its way into the App Store. 

For me at least, these two stories taken together speak loudly and clearly to a driverless future being closer than we might think – and I, for one, am a wee bit excited.

Related articles


 

Hear, hear! Here's to the woman behind making Alexa inclusive

Sarah Caplener - one of seven superwomen behind Alexa

Last month saw International Women's Day (8th March) celebrated in numerous articles and news stories around the world that helped highlight the fantastic and Colour photograph of Sarah Capleneroften futuristic work women are doing across all sectors - and tech is absolutely no exception. 

One excellent example is an article that chose to focus on the top seven women behind Amazon Alexa - but the one woman from this number that I would personally like to call out for her amazing work in the area of accessibility and inclusive design for the Amazon Echo is Sarah Caplener, senior manager for product management in the Alexa for Everyone team.

When she came to Amazon, Sarah Caplener never imagined she would be leading the Alexa for Everyone team that focuses on making Alexa as helpful, inclusive and useful as possible for older customers and those with disabilities. Since then the team has made several strides towards ensuring that the world's most popular smartspeaker isn't excluding those you may think would struggle; those who can't speak or can't hear.

"I am proud of the team we have built and the first features we have released: Tap to Alexa, an accessibility setting on Echo Show and Echo Spot that enables customers to interact with Alexa through touch or text input, and Alexa Captioning, which allows customers to see text on-screen for Alexa response. Together these features represented the first steps toward making smart speakers accessible to people who are deaf, hard of hearing, and have speech impairments."
- Sarah Caplener, senior manager for product management in the Alexa for Everyone team

There are now two models of Echo that have a screen; the Echo Show and Echo Spot. Having a screen means that additional information can be displayed such as the weather forecast, lyrics to songs, Youtube videos or steps to a recipe. 

Colour photo of the Echo Show screen showing the weather temperaturePhoto of the Echo Spot with Good morning its 6.30am message on the screen, current temperature and weather forecast

Alexa Captioning

Now, thanks to Alexa Captioning, these screens can also be used to display everything that is spoken out by the helpful assistant. Obvious when you think about it, but unique to the Echo to date. Other assistants serve up some information on-screen it's true, but certainly not a transcript of everything that's said. And of course, subtitles are also switched on for all video content whenever available. 

Suddenly a stunningly helpful device that centres around speech output is also open to those who are deaf or hard of hearing. And of course, it might also be great for those who need to use the A-lady in a noisy environment where her words would otherwise be lost in the hubbub - even if that noise is only temporary with the kids clattering, extractor fan thrumming and the blender buzzing.

Tap to Alexa

Similarly, a simple addition of allowing people to tap out inputs on a touchscreen rather than speaking them out loud means that people with a speech impairment aren't left behind. And once again (as we so often see with inclusive design) those changes to aid accessibility just end up increasing the flexibility and usefulness of the device for others too. Try talking to Alexa in those same noisy conditions mentioned above and you'll almost certainly struggle to be understood - but being able to tap out a command or choose an option with sticky fingers instead might be very welcome. Just remember to wipe the screen down afterwards.

So keep up the great work Sarah, along with all the other women and men behind the ever-improving features (both mainstream and accessibility-focused) of the amazing Amazon Echo. 

Am I a fan? Yes I am. Can the A-lady control a fan? Yes, of course she can - along with a myriad of other useful aspects of what Alexa can do, it can help those with really challenging impairments control not only their digital but physical lives too. Check out some of the many other smartspeaker-related articles we've written on this site to find out more.

Related Links

Multiple Sclerosis round up for MS Awareness Week 2019

This week is MS Awareness Week and we have done a round-up of the content we have available on our website for this often misunderstood condition.

  • Our free services team went out to help Laura get back to using her computer
  • We have our Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) list on how quick and easy changes can be made to your device to make it easier for you to use if you have Multiple Sclerosis
  • Lots of people who have MS prefer to use the computer by talking to it. Voice recognition can be very effective at helping you to produce work and control your computer 
  • Smart home technology such as Alexa or Google Home can be really useful devices to consider if you are wanting to control your home environment such as opening doors or closing or opening curtains or blinds
  • You can also call our friendly Advice and Information Officer Alex on 0800 269 545 to have a chat and talk over possible solutions 
  • We also have a network of volunteers who can come out and support you in yor own home to sort out technical issues

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