Independence through voice recognition

"My ITCanHelp volunteer really appreciates that computer access is my link to the outside world.”

Northumberland-based Belinda Sidebotham is a tetraplegic – the result of a motorbike accident 35 years ago when she was only 17 years old.  She is paralysed from the chest down, uses an electric wheelchair and has only very limited use of her arms.  When she first met Fred Godfrey, her ITCanHelp volunteer in 2009, she was using her computer courtesy of a stick attached to her hand with a Velcro band – a device which had been created for her all those years ago in the Spinal Unit.  Typing a short email could take up to half an hour and was not only difficult but also uncomfortable.

Belinda received a home visit

Fred introduced Belinda to voice recognition (VR) technology via Dragon Naturally Speaking software and she has never looked back.  After a couple of months’ familiarisation, she was practically a ‘digital native’ and now spends up to eight hours a day on the computer.  She has achieved full computer access and control of all input and output through speech alone.

Says Belinda:  “Fred was absolutely brilliant – a true professional in every way and an expert in everything.  His patience was endless, even though teaching me how to use the new system must have been very frustrating at times.

“Whenever I had a problem or the computer crashed, he was straight round to help and he truly appreciates that computer access is my link to the outside world, my independence and a key contributor to my psychological and emotional wellbeing.”

Now an experienced VR user, Fred is a less frequent caller in person, although Belinda still consults him remotely by email or phone on occasions:  “It’s wonderful knowing that he’s there to advise whenever I have an IT-related concern.  I cannot imagine life without my Dragon software and I know that Fred truly understands what a vital role it performs for me.”

Some seventeen years ago Belinda completed a BSc in Social Sciences with the Open University – a feat which took her six years of part-time study.  Each month she laboriously tapped out a 2000 word essay with her improvised stick and Velcro typing tool.  Says Belinda:  “If I’d been aware of IT Can Help and had had the benefit of VR at that time, it would have saved me hours and hours, not to mention all the discomfort it inevitably caused as well.”

Now turning on the computer is Belinda’s first task of the day before checking her email, calendar and busy diary.  A committed social networker, Belinda is active on both Facebook and Twitter, as well as contributing to several disability forums and groups including the Spinal Injuries Association where she is a continual source of inspiration to others.

A seasoned traveller, Belinda also researches holiday destinations and books flights online.  It’s important to ensure that her chosen location is thoroughly wheelchair friendly and Belinda has become something of an expert at investigating access arrangements.  As a result, Belinda has travelled all over Europe and further afield to the Canaries, Tunisia, Egypt and even West Africa.

She shops, banks and listens to music and the radio online, in addition to reading her favourite newspapers and magazines.  She is also a frequent visitor to online auction, eBay and Amazon (where she buys all her books) and then reads them on her computer courtesy of Kindle.  A keen texter, Belinda even uses a computer-based texting tool called Textmagic. 

In her spare time Belinda pursues several other interests, particularly genealogy:  “I have been researching my family tree for the past ten years. With the internet I can examine census info and other online archive materials easily and quickly in the comfort of my own home – an invaluable tool.”

Technological innovation, in the form of an environmental control system, also gives Belinda the ability to operate the telephone, the heating, the tv and the lighting autonomously.  “Digital technology gives me a degree of freedom that cannot be underestimated and was unimaginable when I was first facing the future as a disabled person.  It’s fantastic being able to decide what I want to do when I want to do it, rather than relying on other people all the time!”

Belinda is married to Stan and gave birth to her son, Harry (28) in 1985.  She says:  “My rollercoaster ride of a life has presented me with many challenges and struggles to overcome in order to achieve the things I have wanted to.  Having a positive outlook and being determined is essential - nothing can be done without hope.  But I’m also lucky to have a great husband who gives me strength and to have met some fantastic, caring and inspirational people who have helped me along the way and have become good friends too.  Fred, my ITCanHelp volunteer, is definitely one of them.”

Tessa is keeping in touch across the pond...

Tessa is an older lady who lives in London and first made contact with Abilitynet in November 2014 after hearing about us from Age UK. She was struggling to use a computer she'd recently bought so AbilityNet volunteer Clive Tilley got in touch really quickly and arranged a visit. 

He took her through exactly how to use her computer to enhance her everyday life and gave her brilliant advice on a new webcam that would be compatible with her existing hardware. The help has been particularly useful in opening up contact with her friends in Canada who she now Skypes on a regular basis.

Tessa is now recommending our service to her disabled sister who is about to buy a new computer and needs help and advice to set it up. “I’m so thrilled, she said. "AbilityNet is such as useful thing to have for people like me.”

Jim joins the 21st Century

Jim Moore is register blind and lives in Northern Ireland. Before he met our volunteer he was afraid to switch on his computer.

Our volunteer Malcolm provided unwavering support over a long period of time. Using his wide expertise he helped Jim with a whole host of IT solutions including screen reading software JAWS, PDFs, memory stick use, downloading voice files, dropbox, Skype and carrying out basic functions on iphone using Voiceover.

Jim is now competent and confident to use his PC on a stand alone basis with only occasional help. He can communicate more effectively with university support providers and this has greatly enhanced the benefit of their support.

Jim is delighted with the help he's received. “I am now integrated into the 21st century," he says, "and can organise my business and social affairs accordingly. I wish to acknowledge my heartfelt gratitude to AbilityNet's IT Can Help service and to Malcolm Lees in particular.  The help has greatly enhanced my quality of life in retirement.”

Getting to grips with a Mac

A lady called us for help to support herself and her husband who has macular degenerative which impairs his vision.  After living abroad for 24 years they returned to the UK and were struggling with their Mac. Our volunteer Duncan Prince promptly arranged a visit to see the lady and her husband at their home in London.  He supported them in updating their Mac, setting up a larger keyboard and locating their photo files. 

“Duncan’s visit was a great confidence builder," says the woman, who wishes to remain anonymous. "He was a lovely person and spent ages with us. He improved our situation enormously.”

Golf scores made quick, easy and accessible for all ….

What Jim Gales, MBE, from Fife doesn’t know about golf isn’t worth knowing. Jim, who is 51 years old and suffers from Retinitis pigmentosa (RP) is the Chairman and Founder (2004) of the Scottish Disability Golf Partnership (SDGP).

Initially they were a small group of sensory, physically and intellectually challenged golfers  and coaches/carers, who played friendly games at various local venues in Scotland.  This quickly developed into regional, national and international tournament play and they now have over three dozen annual days of golf and golf training in Scotland and have held SDGP competitions in three other countries. 

The SDGP, now has more than 900 members in more than 20 countries and actively encourages anyone of any age with a disability or serious health problem and their sighted coaches to participate in the game.  Jim, with his sighted guide, Paul Shephard, began playing golf in 1991.

Colin Hill has been giving his free time volunteering with AbilityNet  since September 2011.  Colin first made contact with Jim in January of this year when he responded to a request put out to volunteers who have indicated that they are prepared to provide remote assistance (essential in this case as there is no volunteer coverage in Jim’s particular area of Scotland  -  Colin lives at the other end of the country in Wiltshire!). Colin spent a huge amount of time working with Jim to develop pre-existing golf scoring spreadsheets and to produce new ones where necessary.

Jim and his colleagues had been generally "stuck" with the spreadsheets since the end of their golfing season and while they were functional, there were many gaps in the process and frustrations with their accessibility.  With Colin’s persistence and patience, these issues have been resolved and they are now in a place where we they have mobility, easy access and know that the correct results will be produced.

Colin said “I endeavoured to make the spreadsheets pleasing to the eye for sighted users and pleasing to the ear for non-sighted users with screen reading technology.  My aim was for the spreadsheets to ‘do all the work’ and to minimise user input as far as possible. Visual/Audio ‘noise’ is also minimised wherever possible. One example of this is that many data fields become automatically populated only when specific ‘key’ input fields are completed.”

Jim and Colin made a great team, Jim spend time inputting dummy data and trying out the spreadsheets.  Jim said “Above all, I have found working with Colin to be great fun and have greatly enjoyed our communications and the humour contained therein.”

Colin found the work pretty challenging but greatly enjoyed the journey.  He is not a programmer or an IT professional and hadn’t had any formal training on Excel, but he is an enthusiast and finds the program to be both absorbing and powerful.  Through this project he learned a great deal more about the application and enjoyed the technical challenges posed. 

Colin says “I have also learned a great deal from Jim, fully realising that small changes in approach can make a huge difference to those with disadvantages.”

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