Can tech help improve the experience of international students?

The Higher Education Commission has launched ‘Staying Ahead: Are International Students Going Down Under?’ - a new report highlighting the challenges of continuing to recruit overseas students to the UK. It raises a lot of questions about the UK's role as a leading provider of HE to the rest of the world - but can inclusive tech services help deliver a better experience for them?

UK higher education enjoys a world-class reputation and is second only to the USA in attracting overseas students. That position is under threat however, with falling numbers coming to the UK amid increased competition and concerns about increasing fees. I attended the launch event at the Houses of Parliament and amongst the many points raised saw an opportunity for tech to enhance the student experience and help stop the slide.

Stats presented by UKCISA showed a decline in international students in the last few years - this was attributed to many factors but discussion particularly focused on a need to identify a Unique Selling Proposition (USP) for UK HE that could attract international students. 

AbilityNet is passionate about the endless possibilities tech offers in an educational setting, especially for those with additional needs, so it was great to see the CEO of JISC on the panel mentioning the role of tech in HE systems and the difference it can make to the success of every students.

This includes internal admissions, student support systems that can identify study needs, accessible virtual learning environments (VLEs), and signposting support for assistive tech including apps and adjustments. 

We know that this type of technology has the potential to increase well-being, inclusion and support for students with disabilities and learning differences, but it also provides additional support for the whole cohort of students - so perhaps it provides a USP for attracting international talent?

It will be great to see what the future may hold for technology and education and the benefits it will bring to each individuals studies. 

More information

Read the report ‘Staying Ahead: Are International Students Going Down Under?’

The twitter handle used was @EduSkillsHE - use the hashtag #StayingAhead to follow ongoing discussion on Twitter.

AbilityNet offers support to students and advisers about technology and disabilities:

The Xbox Adaptive Controller - Gaming for Everyone

'Gaming for Everyone' is Microsoft's motto from Xbox and encapsulates their mission to make Xbox a more fun, diverse and inclusive place for everyone to play. Unfortunately 'everyone' has not always included all gamers, as many felt frustrated by the standard controller that made the console unplayable for people with a variety of health conditions and impairments. For those with mobility-limiting conditions the standard controller is challenging due to its inflexibility and inability to connect with assistive technology if, for example, you need to use a one-handed joystick.

But finally, gaming will be for everyone thanks to the Xbox Adaptive Controller, which was released this month as part of Global Accessibility Awareness Day.

Xbox Adaptive Controller

About the Xbox Adaptive Controller

Numerous features reveal inclusivity as the primary function of the device: like nineteen 3.5mm jack inputs to attach all the peripherals that can ease a user's gaming experience and two large buttons with light resistance and easy remapping of in-game controls.

Having inputs to attach peripherals allows the use of assistive technology such as the 3dRudder foot controller for gaming and also the Quadstick: a game controller for quadriplegics

The controller is the first of its kind released by a major company and targeted at the disability community, making this an important step forward in the accessibility in gaming space.

It is however important to acknowledge the work of smaller organisations such as SpecialEffect, an AbilityNet Tech4good Awards winner, that for some time have been using a range of modified and off-the-shelf technology to help people with physical disabilities to play video games.

V&A museum adds the Xbox Adaptive Controller to its collection

Xbox Adaptive Controller on display at the V&A MuseumThe Xbox Adaptive Controller was recently acquired by the V&A museum and added to their Rapid Response Collecting gallery because of its outstanding design.

Corinna Gardner, senior curator at the V&A, commented on the Xbox Adaptive Controller being added to a gallery at the V&A: "The Rapid Response Collecting is about bringing objects into the museum that signal moments of economic, political, social and technological change... The Xbox Adaptive Controller was an object that we thought very much captured a specific moment within the field of video games but also more broadly about social and inclusive design. It’s a real opportunity to bring an object into the collection that addresses the question of inclusive design head on. It’s an important and attractive acquisition for us here at the V&A."

The importance of accessibility in gaming

The reason gaming is so important for so many people is because it is the only form of medium that can unite imagination and interactivity to such a degree that you can put yourself in the center of the action. It makes you feel a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment whenever you complete an objective and the majority of people, with or without a disability, will otherwise not experience the thrill of driving a Ferrari in Monte Carlo or swinging around New York City like Spiderman.

Millions of players have been unable to enjoy video games because of the lack of support for users with health conditions and/or impairments, but recently there has been an apparent shift towards holistic adoption of accessibility and inclusive design approaches. Many games have dedicated accessibility settings that, for example, allow you to make text larger and deactivate quick time-events where the player has to press a button in a limited time. These features are being warmly received by all players, with the wider gaming community appreciating features being present that make games interesting, fun, and arguably most importantly - more accessible for people with disabilities.

Find Out More

Read our blog on 5 ways accessibility in video games is evolving

Read our interview with Ian Hamilton, video game accessibility specialist and advocate

How to learn from Apple's mistakes on website accessibility

We often post about how good Apple is on accessibility, but a legal complaint against the company by a screenreader user last month has shown that even the biggest tech giants can fall foul of accessibility regulations and guidelines sometimes. Smaller organisations are often not considering web accessibility at all, meaning they could be discriminating against disabled people without realising. 

apple website screenshot with the message 'welcome to the big screens' introducing their new iPhones

According to the complaint against Apple, the company's website misses out some descriptions of images for screenreader users and presents confusing and unclear links about store locations and hours. These problems can make using a website frustrating and difficult for a blind person. 

Myself and the AbilityNet accessibility team looked at the case last month and then ran through the website to check out the issues. It revealed some simple, easily fixable problems which I've mentioned below. They found that although there were no issues here which completely prevented reaching the final stage of buying an iPhone, there are a number of challenges with the flow that will cause some users difficulties such as:

  1. Dynamic progression through shopping process
  2. Unclear method for returning to previous steps
  3. Insufficiently labelled radio buttons

Check out our detailed analysis for an expert insight on how to address accessibility issues. And feel free to use the code and ideas to make changes to your own website to provide a more inclusive digital experience. 

Investigating Apple website accessibility issues

First we looked at difficulties accessing store locations and hours.

One of the issues noted within the complaint was that screenreader users had difficulty finding store information e.g. location and opening times. So we ran through the user-journey for finding a store, using the JAWS screenreader as this is one of the more popular screenreaders available - and is specifically mentioned in the case.

There were multiple difficulties noted. The key issues were:

  • Insufficiently labelled input fields (meaning screenreaders are left unsure of what information is needed in the boxes they're asked to enter information into)
  • Links with identical text, that lead to different locations. While this is not a failure of WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines), it is not good practise.
  • Dynamic content not made accessible to screenreader users, e.g. auto-suggest search results

Further difficulties noted in the complaint were:

  • Unable to browse and purchase electronics such as the iPhone, iPad, and MacBook Pro laptop
  • Inability to make service appointments online
  • Trouble finding a store

Finding a store

We found that navigating to the 'Find a store' page was relatively simple. From the homepage, using a JAWS screenreader, the user presses H until 'Apple Store' heading is selected. Then they tab to the 'Find a store' link, which leads to the find a store page. The form on this page is presented as the image below.

Find a store, City and State or Zip, complete store list

Sighted users are informed that this input field requires the City and State or Zip code (US).  JAWS users will hear the placeholder text (City and State or Zip) announced if they use the JAWS form field list, or JAWS users who tab onto the input field will instead just hear 'Find a store. Edit. Required.'

This tells them that:

  1. The label is 'Find a store'
  2. It is an edit field, so they need to enter some information
  3. It is a required field

But it is not clear what information they need to enter. Is it a town? Postcode? County?

Whilst users may opt to guess at this point, it is straightforward to ensure that screenreader users get the same information as sighted users by entering the following code:

<input class="global-retail-search block" required="" type="search" placeholder="City and State or Zip" autocorrect="off" results="0" data-autoglobalsearch-module="retail-locator">

This uses the placeholder attribute (highlighted) to label the input field. However, the placeholder attribute should not be relied on to convey information. This article on the popular Smashing Magazine website explains why not to rely on the placeholder attribute. 

This issue is easily remedied - simply use the aria-label attribute, as below, to duplicate the placeholder text for sighted users in the process.

<input class="global-retail-search block" required="" type="search" placeholder="City and State or Zip" aria-label="City and State or Zip"autocorrect="off" results="0" data-autoglobalsearch-module="retail-locator">

Alternatively, the more traditional HTML <label> element could be used to provide a hidden label, announced for screenreader users.

Accessing Apple store information online

Let's assume the user tries to enter a city name (not an unreasonable assumption) to see what happens.

Entering some characters into the search field displays the following auto-suggest results:

New York, New York Mills

While these are easily visible below the search input field, screenreader users are not informed of these results. In addition, pressing enter has no effect except to set the focus back to the top of the page. This means that screenreader users will need to manually navigate to the search results in the bottom half of the screen – they are still not made aware of these results however, so would need to manually explore.

Once they reach the results, further challenges are presented. Each of the store location results has identical 'View store details' links:

graphic showing list of Apple store locations

These are all announced as 'View store details' - there is no easy way for screenreader users to distinguish them. On the homepage, Apple uses hidden text to distinguish otherwise similar links e.g. 'Find out more', or 'Buy now'. This is not the case here. When reading through the links on the page, a screenreader hears the following:

view store details, view store details, view store details, view store details

Note the multiple 'View store details' links.

However, each of the stores is prefixed with a descriptive heading, so a user can select a link and then use a shortcut to hear the preceding heading announced. This would tell them that the first link to 'View store details' is about 'Apple Upper East Side'.

As there is already a technique in place elsewhere on the website for augmenting links with descriptive hidden text, it would not be difficult to replicate this here such that the links were announced as 'View store details: Apple Upper East Side' for example.

Viewing store details

Selecting a link to view the store details leads to a further page with store information:

Apple East Side Address, Madison Avenue

It was relatively straightforward to read the store information here. The address and store hours were announced as expected by the JAWS screenreader.

Browsing and buying products

When looking to buy products from the online store, some specific difficulties were encountered. For example, when following the flow to purchase the iPhone X, the flow consists of multiple steps, at each step making a choice such as model, carrier, finish.

These steps are dynamic – as soon as a user chooses the option for step 1, they are taken to step 2 without warning. This is a failure of the WCAG 2.0 success criteria on input. Users inputting data (e.g. making a selection via a form control) should not experience a change in context e.g. being taken to a new page, or step, without warning.  

However, otherwise this flow works reasonably well - the user is told when they land on a new step, and can proceed as expected. The dynamic nature may cause difficulties for some users however, especially as the method for returning to the previous step is not clearly explained – vital in case a user selects an option by mistake. A preferred solution is to let the users make their choice – colour, carrier, capacity etc – and then select a button to confirm their choice before they are taken to a new page.

There was one interesting issue related to the final step of selecting the capacity of the iPhone being purchased:

Now choose your capacity click options 64gb or 256gb

These buttons are marked up as radio buttons. However, the labels are not usefully announced. Sighted users can see the superscript 2, but this is not distinguished as such by JAWS users, who hear this announced as "64GB 2$49.91/mo" and it is further not clear that this 2 relates to a footnote which gives further information about the available capacity on the selected model.

Mo is also not explained adequately. It would be better to use 'Month' in full to avoid ambiguity.


There were no issues here which completely prevented reaching the final stage of buying an iPhone, but there were a number of challenges with the flow that will cause some users difficulties such as

  1. Dynamic progression through shopping process
  2. Unclear method for returning to previous steps
  3. Insufficiently labelled radio buttons

The fixes described above provide an expert view of the way to address these issues to deliver a more inclusive user experience.

For more on making your website accessible, click here. 

Joe Chidzik is the Principal Accessibility Consultant at AbilityNet

Common questions about fibromyalgia and computing answered

Fibromyalgia Awareness Week banner via Fibromyalgia Action UK - around 1 in 20 in the UK affectedFibromyalgia has been in the news recently with Radio 4 presenter Kirsty Young announcing that she is going to take a break from the programme 'Desert Island Discs' as her fibromyalgia is causing her issues.

Fibromyalgia is much misunderstood, can cause pain all over the body and can also have symptoms such as non-refreshing sleep and clumsiness. This week (2 - 9 September 2018) is Fibromyalgia Awareness Week and we wanted to answer some questions we frequently get asked about how computers and digital technology can be adapted to help those with fibromyalgia and other similar conditions.

From day-to-day, I have really sore fingers. I’ve heard about voice recognition - is it difficult to set-up?

No, not at all! If you have a fairly new Windows or Apple computer then you have built-in voice recognition. It is easy to use and as long as you practice for a while you should be able to get fairly good voice recognition. We’d always suggest getting a USB microphone as normally the external microphones are not of a high enough quality to be effective at recognizing your voice.

I want to keep on typing to control the computer. What might work for me?

Depending on how you are affected by fibromyalgia there are a couple of solutions that might work for you. There are keyboards which are known as 'compact' - these don’t tend to have the number pad on the right-hand side so it means you don’t have to stretch from one side of the keyboard to the other.  Other keyboards have a bit of a 'softer touch' so you don’t need to hit the keyboard quite as hard. Other technology we might suggest includes word prediction software which will automatically predict the words you are typing.

Fibromyalgia causes 'brain fog' and I have real issues trying to work. I find software with many options confusing. What can I do?

Within software packages like Microsoft Word there are lots of ways of making things easier for you. One of the most effective options is the ability to hide toolbars and taskbars in your Microsoft Office applications to remove options and tools you never seem to use. This should help you focus more effectively on the functionality that you do need to use.

What about smart home devices? Could they help me?

Devices such as Google Home and Amazon's Alexa device can certainly help you in all sorts of ways. If you have poor memory skills you can ask the devices to remind you about important appointments or things that you need to buy at the supermarket. They can also help you if you feel anxious, as there are lots of 'skills' that can improve your mental health and help you to relax.

Case study

Clive's sister Fiona has fibromyalgia and she has lots of difficulties with trying to keep up-to-date with hospital appointments. They had a chat to AbilityNet's friendly Advice and Information Officer who suggested using an online diary in conjunction with a smart home device so they could make (and more importantly remember) important hospital visits. Fiona is a very visual person so one of our volunteers also visited Fiona in her home and helped her to colour-code her appointments to make them easier to see.

How can we help?

AbilityNet provides a range of free services to help people with disabilities and older people use computers and other digital technology to achieve their goals. There are a number of ways and situations in which you can contact us and request our help.

Call our free helpline - our friendly, knowledgeable staff can help with many computer problems and questions about adapting digital technology to your needs. Our helpline is open Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm on 0800 269 545.

In a work environment, all employers have a responsibility to make Reasonable Adjustments to ensure people with disabilities can access the same opportunities and services as everybody else. For more details on this visit and

Arrange a home visit - we have a network of volunteers who can help if you have technical issues with your computer systems. They can come to your home, or help you remotely over the phone.

We have a range of factsheets which can be downloaded for free and contain comprehensive information about technology that might help you.

My Computer My Way - a free interactive guide to all the accessibility features built into current desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones.

Project Silver - what it means for accessibility and how you can help make the web more inclusive

silve panel

It’s just a few months since the Web Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 (WCAG) were publicly released by the World Wide Web Consortium (WC3). But, work has already started on the guidelines’ successor, currently known as Project Silver.

AbilityNet will be following the guidelines’ development over the coming years (the project might be in development for five years) and will be looking for ways we can contribute our wide-ranging expertise from working on web accessibility for numerous large organisations. 

Can you help with Project Silver?

Anyone can contribute to the project and, after a year of initial research, it already has some good foundational ideas about what needs development with the guidelines. The project is particularly looking for participation from experts in the accessibility community who can help with:

  • Writing plain and simple language. The current WCAG 2.1 uses some complex language and we would welcome simplification for our clients and other organisations.
  • Links and resources for supporting content, examples and tutorials. We believe this would hugely help organisations understand accessibility much more clearly and mean that more disabled people could access essential services online. 

The new update comes because a group of people within the WC3 wanted to work on the next major evolution of accessibility guidance with a User Experience model. This meant researching what users needed from accessibility guidance and potentially recommending a major restructuring of WCAG.

A Silver Design Sprint has been already completed, developing a prototype and user testing. This is due in September 2018. 

Experts and members of public needed

If you’d like to contribute to Project Silver, here are some options:

Task Force Participant: the most time-consuming level of participation. The time commitment is estimated to be 6-10 hours per week. To join the Silver Task Force, individuals must be participants of the Accessibility Guidelines Working Group. 

The Silver Community Group is open to the public, and only requires a (free) W3C account and agreeing to the intellectual property commitment for W3C Community Groups. Participants contribute at the amount of time that is convenient for them. 

  • Research Partner: The Silver Task Force seeks qualified researchers in accessibility fields to assist with user research and background research on Silver and WCAG 2. 
  • Silver Stakeholder: people who would provide valuable perspective on a new design of accessibility guidelines. 
  • Comments on publications: The Silver Task Force invites the public to comment on its work. Announcements on Silver Task Force work will be announced on the Silver Email list (].

Publications will be also be tweeted with the #a11y and #wcag hashtags. Silver publications use the #a11ySilver hashtag. All publications include instructions for comments. 

Writing in plain English

Main topics you can help with:

  • Writing Silver in plain/simple language. Great for editors.
  • Linking to more helpful information that is hard to find.
  • Creating a homepage useful for both beginners and experts.
  • Developing a method for accessibility experts to contribute new content.
  • Changing how to define conformance beyond true/false success criteria statements.
  • Improving specification development tools, i.e. a simplified interface to Github so more people with disabilities can participate.
  • Helping to organise usability testing of the different ideas.

Find out more

This blog was written by Marta Valle and Joe Chidzik from AbilityNet's accessibility team

Eye-opening blind mobility service Right-Hear is coming, er, right here (to the UK)

Based upon an award-winning blind mobility and orientation system, Right-Hear is a service that is about to boost the confidence and choices of blind people out and about – well, actually indoors - in the UK.

Being blind brings challenges when getting around

Robin Christopherson with service dog ArchieWith a trusty guide-dog or long cane, blind people can effectively navigate the cluttered streets and swarming crowds (often comprising many people distracted by smartphones) and avoid the pitfalls (quite literally) of roadworks and vehicles parked on the pavements. We can usually end up where we intended to go without incident or misadventure. 

The challenge often comes, however, when you are so close to your destination that you could probably touch it – although you don't know that you can because, well, you can't see. GPS apps on our phone are great at getting us to the approximate area of our goal (the door of a shop, say) but not accurate enough as to enable us to find it without a lot of feeling around and trial and error. 

Once in the door there are all the other challenges associated with finding our way around the aisles or corridors, locating lifts or (and this is by far the most important one) loos and sourcing a helping hand by seeking out the customer-service desk.

Tech to the rescue

Bluetooth beacons, combined with cleverly coded software on our smartphones, can help blind people not only precisely find the door of the building but also every other desired destination within it. Using an open standard that has been developed specifically to help the visually impaired and those with other orientation impairments called Wayfindr (winner of the 2016 Tech4Good Accessibility Award), the Right-Hear solution is about to hit the streets (or at least the buildings and unmapped open spaces) of the UK and it's worth a look. Let's see it in action in this short video:

Mobilising mobility solutions - made easy

Wayfindr has prepared the ground for services such as Right-Hear to be more readily realised. The challenge of how and when to present just the right amount of spoken information to help someone orientate and navigate around in an open space has been clearly laid-out in the Wayfindr open standard

Right-Hear has used that foundation and built both an app for blind end-users and an easy-to-use dashboard for venue owners to configure the experience for their customers. 

Let's take a look in this video at how a venue can be set up to use the service:

Showing the way forward

Easy and effective, let's hope that Right-Hear and other such services represent significant steps to enhanced mobility for everyone who faces challenges finding their way around. Wayfindr has paved the way for many such services to be developed and deployed in the UK and across the world. 

Just as there is a plethora of GPS apps to choose from, so should there soon be choice and a competitive landscape in which everyone can easily find their way around both indoors and out. 

Bravo to Right-Hear. We encourage everyone responsible for a building or unmapped open space to use such solutions to make them truly accessible.

Related articles

Three cool smart glasses to help people who are blind or have sight loss

Microsoft Seeing AI - the best ever app for blind people just got even better

How Accessible Smart Cities Will Help Disabled People

GOV.UK and Alexa: Government keen to hear the voice of the people

The GOV.UK team have been working hard at bringing their information available online to a smartspeaker near you - another solid step towards bringing public services into the age of ambient computing.

The steady surge of smartspeakers

The Amazon Echo Dot Smartspeaker ownership is growing rapidly. Already up 3% in 2018 to date, ownership of voice-activated speakers now stands at 8% of the adult UK population - with voice searches more generally also rising rapidly. In 2016, 1 in every 5 Google searches on Android were voice searches, with market analyst ComScore predicting that half of all search queries will be spoken by 2020. Voice as an interface to the internet is clearly here to stay.

Not just a pretty voice

As many of you may already know, there is a lot more that you can do with a smartspeaker than just listen to music, radio, the news and the weather. If you don't, then my daily podcast on all things Alexa is an excellent place to start. Click that link to subscribe in iTunes, search for 'Dot to Dot' in your podcatching app of choice, or simply ask your favourite smartspeaker to play that podcast and it'll start with the latest episode.

Google Home deviceNow wouldn't it be great if Alexa or your Google Home knew as much about government services as it did about celebrities or stock prices? Wouldn't it be great if you could ask your smartspeaker how long it takes to get a new passport, how much it would cost to take your driving test or when your child benefit would be paid?

Well, thanks to the GOV.UK team, you can ask Google Assistant those very questions as well as others along similar public-service lines - on your Google Home smartspeaker, on your Android phone or on an iPhone using the Google Search app. This is as a result of their implementing new 'search schemas'; a method recommended by Google to surface succinct responses from a website in a form ideal for being quickly read on-screen or spoken by a smartspeaker. Similar approaches exist for Siri, Alexa and Cortana (Microsoft's virtual assistant) and the team hope to add such capabilities to these platforms shortly.

Read all about it

You can read all about their advances, along with their future ambitions for ambient computing in the delivery of public sector services, in a recent post published on their website; 'Hey GOV.UK, what are you doing about voice?'. I was fortunate enough to contribute to their on-going research in this area, and they were kind enough to include a link in this post to my article all about how smartspeakers are perfect for people with disabilities; 'Alexa vs Google Home vs Cortana: The battle to reach every user intensifies'.

Related articles

How do Alexa and Amazon Echo help disabled people?

Can Alexa improve your health?

Alexa vs Google Home vs Cortana: The battle to reach every user intensifies

Teen who tackles isolation amongst children with disabilities and life limiting conditions receives T4G Special Award

Every year AbilityNet gives a Tech4Good Special Award to someone truly inspirational who captures the spirit of Tech4Good. This year, the award has been given to 17-year-old Lewis Hine from Portsmouth.

Lewis is a social media phenomenon and a tireless disability rights campaigner. Three years ago he set up Friend Finder Official to help reduce isolation among children with chronic and life-limiting conditions, after feeling the loneliness of a long term health condition himself. Liam and his team use social media to arrange proms, Christmas parties, discos, wheelchair basketball, gaming sessions, soft play sessions, indoor skiing and much more. They also use Near Field technology and AV1 robots to make those connections and experiences easier and more possible.  

Lewis was 17 months old when he was first diagnosed with a brain tumour and has battled with illness ever since. He’s had more than 13 brain surgeries among other operations and treatments.

Over the years he has missed quite a lot of school and the opportunity to form close friendships. In his early teens he became more aware of the friendship gap felt by other children like him. This led to him setting up Friend Finder Official.

Making friendships easier with Near Field

Explaining the tech Lewis uses, his mum Emma Hine tells AbilityNet: “Lewis uses two types of technology with Friend Finder. He uses Near Field technology connected to a USB stick in the shape of a little plastic hand -  this is from an amazing company called Poken. Lewis pre-loads the hands with the young person’s information and then at friend finder events all the young people are given a hand. When two hands are near each other or touch, they glow green and exchange information.

“This is great for disabled and sick children as many have trouble writing things down. After the event, the young person puts the hand USB stick into their computer and it takes them to the friend finder world platform where they can continue to talk to the friends that they've made at the friend finder event.

AV1 Robots

Emma continues: “The other piece of technology is an AV1 robot from the company No Isolation. The robot is a telepresence robot that works on the 4G network or wifi and enables a young person to attend friend finder events from their hospital bed or bedroom. It also enables the young person to attend school remotely so they don't miss out on education and can still be in lessons and talk through the robot from their hospital bed. Lewis actually uses one of the robots himself to attend college.”

On his website, Lewis explains more about why he set up friend finder: “Every time I started to make friends at school I would end up back in hospital. Things were tough, and I never got invited to birthday parties or to anyone’s house after school for dinner or to just hang out and socialise! I discovered that I was far from alone and that there are over one million children in the UK that miss school due to a long-term illness and that is when the idea of Friend Finder began.”

The charity has now helped more than a thousand children make friends and is inundated with requests globally from children and their parents who want to know when Friend Finder will be coming to their part of the world.

Friends are key to mental and physical wellbeing

“I truly believe that having a friend is one of the most important things in life and is key to our mental and physical wellbeing,” says Lewis. “Everyone needs someone to talk to, to smile, to laugh and sometimes cry with!”

Mark Walker, marketing manager for AbilityNet and organiser of the awards, said Lewis was a very obvious winner: “Every year we give an award to someone in the public eye, someone who we think embodies the spirit of Tech4Good and who is inspiring others.

“Lewis is a phenomenal young person. At the age of 14 decided he wanted to use technology to make the world a better, to help people truly experience what every person wants - to feel a deep connection with others and be able to share their joy and pain with people who understand. The judges all agreed that what Lewis has achieved is worthy of special recognition, so he has joined the ranks of Sir Jimmy Wales, Maggie Philbin and Professor Stephen Hawking as our 8th Tech4Good Special Award winner.”

Going global with Friend Finder

Lewis has been interviewed by the national press, appeared on national television, filmed a CBBC documentary about his life, written a book and received many prestigious awards for his work. He recently received $20,000 in the Bakken Invitation Award which he hopes to use to take Friend Finder global.

Emma adds: “I am so proud of Lewis winning the AbilityNet award. His passion and determination to improve the lives of disabled and chronically sick children is incredible, especially for a young person that is fighting his own life-limiting illness.

“Lewis’s life is not easy which is why he recognised how technology could help make things more accessible and help make his life easier. He is my inspiration and the reason I get up every morning. His vision to change the world is so inspiring and I truly believe he really is making a difference.”

We couldn’t agree more!

Relive the magic of the Tech4Good 2018 Awards ceremony. 




Five Apps for Surviving Freshers Week

September is coming and we all know what that means – the famously frantic freshers’ weeks are upon us! It might be your first time away from home or perhaps you’re just concerned about getting organised, or how you’re going to afford the weekly food bill.

Every year, AbilityNet helps thousands of students with a range of disabilities to get the most from their time at university, and we know that preparation is key. That’s why we’ve put together a list of apps that we think might help you prepare for the start of term…

1. Organisation‘Swipes’ – this handy app is essentially a funky to do list – it allows you to ‘swipe’ tasks to the right to complete them or to the left to remind you later. It’s a nice way of prioritising the things you can do right away and things you can put off until you’re ready. Make your way through your daily tasks, and even get a nice satisfying fanfare at the end.

Swipes logo

2. Positivity‘Wysa’ – this app was designed by therapists, coaches, users, and AI specialists to create a platform where you can talk anonymously about anything that’s concerning you, from stress, anxiety, sleep loss, and a whole range of other mental health and wellness needs. You can make as much or little contact as you need, and also find additional help from qualified mental health professionals too. This is just a chatbot, so please remember it’s not a replacement for human support, and you should always speak with your Student Support Team or another professional if you have any concerns.

Wysa logo

3. Health‘Student Health App’ – staying on top of your health in the first few weeks of university can be tough, with a hectic social life and new academic demands, it’s easy to not take the best care of ourselves. The developers of this app clearly have been through this process themselves. This great app covers anything from first aid, to mental health, to safety at university. This app is free to download on Google Play and the Apple iTunes store.

Student health app logo

4. Budgeting‘Voucher codes’ – let’s be honest, who doesn’t love a bargain? It can be challenging going to university, managing tight budgets, and not wanting to miss out on that tasty takeaway. This app shows you the best deals, from restaurants to online shopping, and even hotels. 

Voucher codes logo

5. Cooking‘all recipes’ – here you can find and share everyday cooking inspiration. Discover new recipes, videos, and how-to’s. This app lets you follow friends, and makes recommendations based on the food you love. You can also see reviews from other users at the bottom of every recipe. It’s essentially a social networking site, but replace the funny cat pictures with tasty food recipes.

All Recipes Logo

AbilityNet has a free helpline for students with disabilities of all kinds, and we can advise on apps to support you while you’re at university. If you’d like to get in touch, you call us free on: 0800 269 545, email us on:, or visit