Finalists announced for AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards 2016

The finalists for the AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards 2016 have been announced - 28 amazing individuals and organisations who are using technology to change the world. With awards that include accessibility, digital skills, young pioneers and digital health our Tech4Good Awards celebrate unsung heroes and international organisations alike for the hard work they put into using technology for social good.  Our panel of judges - which includes includes journalists, technologists and not-for-profit specialists - will now select the winners, but the Tech4Good People’s Award will be decided by you. Any of the 28 finalists can win this Award, and it’s up to you to tell us who you think should win.

AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards are supported by BTMark Walker of AbilityNet is the organiser of the Awards and says that the standard of the year's entries was higher than ever. "We received a record number of entries this year, and the standard was higher than ever," he said. "The judges took longer than ever to make their decisions but we now have 28 businesses, charities and individuals who demonstrate the amazing power of technology to make the world a better place."

"Huge congratulations to everyone who has made the final stages, and a massive thank you to everyone else who entered."

AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards Finalists 2016

AbilityNet Accessibility Award

BT MyDonate Award

BT Young Pioneer Award

Community Impact Award

Digital Health Award

Digital Skills Award

IT Volunteer of the Year Award

Vote now in the People's Award

Visit the Vote Now pagefollow @Tech4GoodAwards on Twitter and vote using the finalists' unique hashtag.

Every tweet and re-tweet counts as a vote, and you can find your favourite finalist’s hashtag on their page, listed below. Voting closes 5pm Tuesday 5th July. 

Five Top Tips for managing Arthritis in the Workplace

By Dan Wilson, assistive technology specialist at Barry Bennett

Spending long hours at your workstation can be an enormous challenge for anyone living with any type of arthritis. Degenerative spinal conditions and widespread joint pain reduce ones capacity to remain in a sedentary position and place increased demands on the supportive muscles in the body. If your arthritis is affecting you at work, why not try the following top tips.

the right chair ensures the right posture1. Get the right chair and look after your back

Use a good quality posture chair capable of providing effective support for your lower back area. Ideally the lumbar support should be adjustable in depth and height to give support in the correct area.

Using a head rest and adjustable arm rests on your chair will help to provide relief from neck and shoulder tension, whilst setting your chair to ‘free-float’ (unlocked mode) will encourage movement whilst sitting and help to alleviate lower back and hip pain.

use a stand to keep your laptop screen at the correct height2. Sort out the screen position

Make sure the top 30% of your display screen is positioned at eye level to help alleviate neck tension. This will ensure that your head remains in a neutral position when working and therefore helps to minimise neck tension.

Using a suitable monitor arm or adjustable laptop stand can help to achieve correct screen position. The Ergo Q- 220 laptop stand is a high-end laptop stand that is very lightweight, folds flat for transport and has the additional facility of an integrated document holder.

3. Try alternative input devices

a split keyboard is one of many options which can make a keyboard more comfortable to useTo deal with problems with wrists and hands there are lots of alternative input devices for any desktop or laptop computer.An ergonomic keyboard is a good way to help relieve tension in the wrists and hands. The split design of the Fujitsu Ergonomic Keyboard offers users the flexibility to alter the width and height for your comfort, whilst the integrated wrist rest provides support for your hands.

Or try a different mouse. For wrist pain or difficulties with grip we recommend trying a vertical type mouse such as the Evoluent IV®.

Or if you experience pain when clicking the mouse, why not try a low impact external touch pad like this GlidePoint Touchpad.

Dragon Naturally Speaking is one of many specialist voice recognition packages on the market4. Try using Voice Recognition Technology

Voice activated software helps when typing long documents and can reduce the use of your mouse. Most computer systems and smartphones have voice recognition options built in. This is more user-friendly than most people would imagine and can radically change your posture for the better.

Although built in options can help with some tasks Dragon Naturally Speaking for PC or Mac is the market leading software. Dragon also offers free apps for users of Apple or Android powered smart phones.

A sit-stand desk is an increasingly popular option in the workplace

5. Try a Sit-Stand workstation

Taking frequent breaks and alternating your sitting posture helps manage their joint pain and reduces muscular fatigue.

If you’re not in a position to invest in an expensive height adjustable desk, why not try a practical solution that can transform your existing workstation into an affordable sit-stand workstation. The VariDesk® is a spring loaded mini-workstation that sits on top of your existing fixed desk. It is capable of supporting your laptop or PC at a range of different heights.

More information about making arthritis and workplace adjustments

Rheumatoid Arthritis and Computing

RA is an auto-immune disease and quite different from osteoarthritis, the ‘wear-and-tear’ form of arthritis which many people get to some degree, particularly as they get older. It can cause disabling pain, stiffness and reduced joint function as well as severe fatigue and can have a huge impact on quality of life for them and their families.

#volunteersweek : One volunteer tells of 20 years service with ITCanHelp, supporting older and disabled people using tech

David Brew (pictured) is a member of the British Computer Society and coordinates the Northern Ireland branch of AbilityNet's volunteer service ITCanHelp. For 20 years, he has been volunteering to help older people and those with disabilities to get the most out of computers and technology. He tells us how it all started and what being a volunteer means to him.

David BrewHow did you start volunteering for ITCanHelp?

I'm a member of the British Computer Society and in the early 80s, we were involved in training unemployed people in computer skills as part of a government scheme. A man who was paraplegic applied and we had to think about how to do the training differently. It was very rewarding and he went on to set up his own successful business. I've been involved in helping disabled people use computers ever since.

A man called Ken Stoner who had Motor Neurone Disease set up ITCanHelp within the Society and later, the team decided to pass the service over to AbilityNet who now deal with the admin, insurance and expenses of ITCanHelp.

How many disabled and older people with computer issues have you helped?

I've volunteered with perhaps around 40 people myself and now run the service in Northern Ireland sending other volunteers out. But I still work with some clients myself. There are hundreds of ITCanHelp Volunteers, a small portion of those are in Northern Ireland.

Is there anyone you've volunteered for who has stayed in your mind?

Adrian, the man who was paraplegic and set up his own business, I remember with fondness. He went on to help us with the service. There was Ruth, who was blind. She was doing the administration for her husband's business and needed to get all her tech communicating with each other effectively, ie, getting her computer talking to her scanner, and the right screenreader and so on. She lived far into the countryside, so I helped her remotely and got things running smoothly.

Can you tell us about one of your most recent assignments helping a disabled or older person use tech?

Yes, a lady asked me to work with her son who had a learning disability. He was naïve in terms of threats online. He was indiscriminate in what he was downloading, the sites he visited and he was endlessly printing unnecessarily. It was a challenge to make sure I didn't inhibit the value of the web to him, but to protect him from threats and exhausting equipment such as the printer.

What do you enjoy about volunteering for ITCanHelp?

Seeing how thrilled people are with really simple help that changes their world. I worked with a blind physiotherapist who really loved using iPlayer to listen to the radio, it was important to him. But it wasn't working for him. He lived a long way from me, so again I helped remotely. We just needed to change his settings in Google Chrome and he was up and running. He was so, so grateful.

How have you dealt with huge changes in tech since you started volunteering?

Things have changed very much. I am a former computer programmer and behind all the gadgets, a lot of the principles are the same. Apps have always been there - formerly called computer programmes. Now they're just in a slightly different form and actually have less functionality.

What's the future for the service?

We have willing volunteers but it's sometimes hard to let the public know about what we offer. I will be trying to get to more events so we can eventually help more and more people. In Scotland and Wales there is a need for more volunteers for the service. 

More information

Interested in volunteering for AbilityNet?

Check out this inspiring video to hear more from our volunteers and those they help

“My computers and tech are now a useable tool, rather than a mish-mash of equipment,” says Jannette, who had a stroke aged 24

Jannette Connell was 24-year-old when she had a stroke, leaving her with mobility and memory difficulties, along with severely impaired sight.

After struggling to get the most out of technology for more than 30 years, Jannette contacted AbilityNet in 2014 and was sent  volunteer IT helper Pankaj, who has been able to spring clean her tech life so that she “feels normal again”.

Technology tailored to your needs

Jannette, now in her fifties, explains: “Pankaj and AbilityNet have been of immense help with helping me sort my computers into a useable life tool rather than a mish-mash of equipment.

“With my conditions, it is difficult to find people to understand and have the patience to listen to my difficulties, but Pankaj gives me encouragement and confidence with his manner. There are still a few issues to sort with some software but I can rely on Pankaj to be on the case.”

Feeling confident and able with technology

Jannette says she is now more comfortable and confident with technology and uses her various devices throughout her daily life, which she couldn't do before.

“I use online banking and shopping and Skype my sister in Canada as well as emails and Facebook," she explains. "I do a lot of computing on my iPad, particularly when I'm away, and I use Youtube for knitting and crocheting patterns and demonstrations."

Janette, Jeremy and Pankaj

Photo: (left to right) Janette's carer Jeremy, Janette and Pankaj

Last year Jannette raised more than £600 using her knitting and crotcheting skills to create poppies for the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal.

Specialist software

The Hertforshire resident had received free equipment over the years, but had been offered little training and because of her difficulties, had trouble remembering what she was taught.

“Jannette also felt unable to deal with specialist software companies and wasn't confident she was getting the best service from them,” explains Stuart Goldberg, Hertfordshire County Coordinator for AbilityNet's ITCanHelp volunteering service.

Local IT business analyst Pankaj Bhasin was sent to Jannette. Since then, he has spent considerable time and effort making her computers more responsive to her needs. “Pankaj has advised her on choosing a new computer and has set up new hardware and software to improve performance, security and accessibility,” says Stuart.

Skilled volunteers

The volunteer, who works for a charity in his day job, offers: “Helping people is in my nature. I was looking for some sort of opportunity where I could utilise my skills and experience to help people by any means.”

Jannette and her carer Jeremy are thrilled with the help, which they say is over and above what other charities offer. “Pankaj and AbilityNet have been absolutely brilliant. The service is there for all disabilities and thank god it's there for people.” See Janette and Pankaj explain more about the IT Can Help service in our short video, here.

Click here if you would like information about AbilityNet's It Can Help service, and have a volunteer come to your home

How a workplace assessment can help you stay on track after a stroke

See how Emma in her 20s began learning to type and text again following a stroke

What’s the future for DSA? Update from AbilityNet Practitioner Days

It's no secret that the Disabled Student Allowance (DSA) grant is in flux - and because AbilityNet has centres around the country, we are gaining increasing knowledge of how government cuts are taking shape on the ground.

Things are changing fast, and as we start to hear back from the first batch of requests for accessible equipment and human helpers, we'll begin to see how the changes will affect students, universities and colleges.

Disabled Student Allowance changes

If you're unsure how the future looks for DSA, and are keen to keep supporting disabled students to have access to supportive tech and helpers, join us at our Practitioner Days in June and July. We will also be looking at the latest tech in this space.

photos of the university of Warwick
Photo: University of Warwick. Credit: Coventry City Council (Flickr)

As a charity, our Practitioner Days offer us and you, a great way to connect with people in FE and HE who are working with disabled students. The sessions are free and take place in London, Birmingham, Brighton and Bristol. See full information on the DSA Practitioner Days here

Debra Jackson, a DSA adviser at Coventry University attended a recent Practitioner Day and says she found it helpful. “The most useful thing was the opportunity to look at some assistive software. As a disability adviser everyone expects us to be up-to-date with the latest features and versions. It was good to hear about free stuff too,” she says. 

Meanwhile, here is an update on the DSA position. Hopefully we’ll see you at our Practitioner Days to discuss the changes from your perspective too.

Will students still get targeted assistance?

Even though there might be smaller provision from government, we are keen to ensure students still get targeted assistance in terms of technology and 'non medical helpers' (NMH), which includes support assistants, note takers and mentors.

We know students with a physical disability or, for example autistic students, may need lots of support to move around the campus or take notes during lectures and would really struggle without this NMH provision. The good news is that we’re seeing some flexibility around this from DSA government officials.

For example, where guidelines initially stated that note takers would need to be provided by the university, they have been revised (at the beginning of April) to state that note takers will now be approved for students with sensory impairments, i.e. hearing/vision. We will keep putting pressure in this area, where needed, to support students.

Share and support

Changes and revisions are happening quickly. We hope to see you at the Practitioner Days where we can share our respective knowledge.

Our next Practitioner Days are in June and July. Book your free place now.

Boyzone's Shane Lynch supports our DSA Claim It! campaign. See more here.

Global Accessibility Awareness Day: Why an accessible website is better for everyone and how to create one

J|oe Chidzik, AbilityNet senior accessibility consultant

Joe Chidzik, senior accessibility consultant at AbilityNet (pictured) reveals common accessibility mistakes and why accessible apps and websites are not just better for the UK's 12 million disabled users, but are better for search engines and better for business. Read on for advice on what you should be doing to ensure your site is legally compliant under the Equality Act 2010.

What are the legal requirements for UK businesses and organisations to make their websites accessible?

The 2010 Equality Act states (among other things) that those offering goods and services should make reasonable adjustments to what they offer so that disabled people can access them. Failure to do some leaves them open to a discrimination case being brought.

The European Commission is also developing web accessibility guidelines. These will be more detailed, with advice and guidance similar to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (see below), for example ensuring provision of alternative text for people with visual limitations. However, at the moment they only apply to public sector sites. We are campaigning to see them include private sector and third sector sites too. 

How to build an accessible website or app

What is seen as a reasonable adjustment for one company or organisation might be different for another, depending on their size and other factors. There is a global set of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) from the World Wide Web Consortium which are both well used, and respected. Our advice is for organisations to strive for WCAG level AA, a subset of the guidelines. There's also a basic accessibility checker called WAVE here

How to build a website or app that meets WCAG level AA 

While these guidelines are a great way of establishing consistency in development, testing with actual disabled users is every bit as essential for ensuring the accessibility of a given product or service. 

We strongly recommend a single point of contact, in the organisation. For example an accessibility champion/ champions that can act as the lead on accessibility issues and be the go-to person for any accessibility-related queries. 

What is the best platform for building an accessible website or app?

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are broadly technology agnostic. For example, they describe different techniques for providing alternative text (a key requirement for screenreader users), but do not describe how to cater for specific screenreaders. In this way, the guidelines remain relevant as newer version of software are released. 

What are most common accessibility errors on websites or apps?

What one company should be doing compared to another can be quite individual - ideally every website or app needs to be tested by disabled users, with additional insight from accessibility experts. Some of the most common problems we come across are poor colour contrast - which makes screens difficult to read for people with dyslexia or colour blindness - and videos without caption, which are difficult for anyone with hearing loss.

Why is accessibility important for business?

In some cases, accessibility can be seen as a ‘checkbox’ activity, but this is very often down to ignorance. For example, many people simply don’t realise that people with little to no vision can use a smartphone or website as easily as a sighted people, as long as it is built with accessibility in mind. 

There are 12 million disabled people in the UK so it makes sound business sense to make a website or app that can be used by as many people as possible. As well as the business benefits, most organisations contact us for help with accessibility simply because it’s the right thing to do. We see a lot of positive effort from organisations we work with to make their products and services more accessible - and they also make sure they educate staff about why they are doing so. 

People may think that it is an unnecessary extra expense, and do not appreciate that making a website, app, or product more accessible, benefits everybody, not just disabled people. And, it often makes the site easier for search engines to understand. 

How does building an accessible websites and apps help every user?

It’s not just disabled people who need accessible design - many people can be disabled by their environment. Someone reading their mobile phone outside will find it more difficult to read the screen due to bright surroundings. By keeping this in mind, it is a reminder that various difficulties can affect all of us, and that everyone ultimately benefits from a more accessible product.

What advice would you give to organisations that want to build more accessible websites and apps?

Web designers and the organisations that pay them are often much too reactive and look at accessibility far too late in the process of building a website or app. They've heard that they should be compliant to WCAG AA, but they think that's just a step at the end of the design and build process.

We know from the experience of our most successful clients that it isn't a 'step’ but needs to be considered throughout the whole process from the word go. Trying to sort things out at the end is much more complicated, difficult and expensive. 

I say to designers and developers, that they should think about designing for themselves in 20, 30, 40 years time. There are many difficulties associated with increased age – loss of visual acuity, or dexterity, but elderly people will often not consider themselves disabled because of these difficulties – they are simply ‘there’ and they learn to cope with them. 

How to test websites and apps with disabled testers

Testing with disabled users is so important. When people come to our lab to see disabled people using their site, they often see people struggling to log in and fill in forms because things aren't labelled up properly, and it has high impact.

This often underlines our point that this isn’t just an arbitrary checkpoint being failed, but an actual person who cannot do what they want because an inaccessible product is letting them down. Seeing a potential customer turned away from their website is a great way to persuade business owners to put accessibility at the heart of their requirements.

Image credit: Jil Wright. Flickr.

AbilityNet calls for EU web accessibility agreement to go further

AbilityNet is calling for the European Union’s web accessibility ‘agreement’ of 3 May 2016 to go further and include all public, private and third sector websites and mobile applications to be accessible, especially for people with disabilities.

When it comes into force, the directive will require EU member states to ensure that public sector websites and mobile applications meet European accessibility standards.

There is no mention of private and third sector websites and applications, which are much greater in number than those in the public sector.

The guidelines will include rules on providing descriptions of non-textual content for persons with visual impairments, or on creating content that can be better presented across a range of devices.

These requirements will make content more accessible and usable to a wider public, and will especially benefit people with various types of disabilities.

Nigel Lewis, CEO of AbilityNet said:

“AbilityNet wholeheartedly welcomes this recent move from the EU to ensure that public sector websites, intranets, extranets and mobile applications are accessible for disabled people, but it doesn’t go far enough.

“By including mobile applications into the scope of the directive, the EU has recognised the overwhelming popularity of mobile devices and that significant numbers of mobile-users will benefit from greater accessibility day to day.

“However, policy makers are missing a trick by not including websites and apps in the private and 3rd sectors. Their sheer volume vastly outweighs public sector websites and in our experience, they lag behind the public sector in accessibility terms.

“All disabled people whether they are in work, in education or at home will benefit from this renewed focus on digital inclusion from Europe and AbilityNet will be working in the UK to support the implementation of the new directive.”

Robots in 2020: How intelligent image recognition will change life for visually impaired people

More than 500 hours of Youtube footage is uploaded every minute, but almost every second is impossible for me and millions of other visually impaired people (and Google) to understand. The good news is that we're entering a new era for intelligent image recognition. We're seeing new innovations coming onstream from some of the biggest names in tech and I predict that by the end of the decade we'll see the kinds of advances that make a real difference to the experience of millions of users worldwide.

Microsoft Azure emotion detection software

Here come the robots

In my last blog, I talked about Twitter now including an alt text option for images, so that tweeted pictures can be more easily described by those tweeting them, and thus understood by audiences including blind users, visually impaired people, and search engines.

While humans are still best placed to interpret what's in an image, I suspect very few people will take the time to use this new hidden Twitter feature. However, the latest advances in artificial intelligence could see robots able to interpret images and add enough information to make sense of an ever increasing visual multimedia world. 

Facebook moves to offer automated interpretation of image contents and Microsoft's moves to also offer automated interpretation of image contents aren't as good as humans yet, but are improving all the time. In fact, I believe that by 2020 such tech will be good enough at pulling out the salient features of an image that it will be indistinguishable from humans in the summaries it produces. It'll be a sort of Turing test for those times when friends are talking you through their holiday snaps.

That's right, my prediction is that by 2020 you won't be able to tell the difference between your friend's description of an image and what a robot tells you it can 'see'.

Microsoft Azure advancements

It's been announced that Microsoft's Azure Media Services is now offering a suite of functionality that promises improved understanding of images and videos for blind users and search engines alike. Azure is the platform for all the company's cloud-based services and this recent addition is a welcome advance in a very exciting (although being blind I might be biased!) area.

According to Techcrunch, one feature of this new offering from Microsoft is the ability to analyse a video and automatically select certain snippets to create a representative summary of the entire video. It also offers improved Optical Character Recognition (OCR) of text within videos.

This makes it much easier for blind users to access that content of a video which may contain written text - such as the opening credits of a film, subtitles, a video of a slideshow or webinar presentation. It is also useful for search engines which must currently rely on image filenames, titles or alt text (if present) to identify relevant images.

screenshot of Microsoft Azure video motion detection

Emotions in motion

A couple of other interesting features included in the recent Microsoft announcement are the fact that both face and emotion detection is now available for videos, as well as movement detection (which automatically identifies when there's been activity in a video) that allows for more significant image analysis to be triggered.

We mentioned last time how this software still has a long way to go. But with tech giants such as Google and Microsoft racing to deliver truly intelligent solutions, I'm very hopeful that these accelerating advancements will deliver a more inclusive multimedia future for everyone.

More information

Using a computer if you have tremors

Essential tremor is caused by an issue of the central nervous system, although the reason why it occurs isn’t really known. People can develop a tremor after having a stroke, MS or dystonia. According to the National Tremor Foundation over 1 million people have an essential tremor in the UK.

Read more about Essential Tremors on the NHS Choices website.

It may be helpful to have a keybaord with very big keysWhat adaptations can make a computer easier to use for someone with essential tremor?

Based on calls to our helpline here are three of the most common questions asked by people with the condition or their carers

I’m having difficulties using the keyboard. What can I do?

If you have a condition that causes tremors you might have lots of unwanted extra characters appearing, but there are many ways you can adapt your keyboard to make it easier for you to use. Use our easy to follow instructions to turn on Filter Keys so that even if you find it really hard to take your hand away from the keyboard you won't end up with lots of unwanted letters.

You may also want to look at one of the many adapted keyboards which are available.

My hands are very shaky and I’d prefer to talk to the computer. Can I do this?

If you decide that you want to try and minimise your use of the keyboard, and if your voice is good you could look at using Voice Recognition. It's built into all current Mac and Windows computers and is also found on Android, iOS and Windows phones and tablets. It needs is a little bit of patience to get used to but can be a very effective way of working without using the keyboard.

You can browse the internet, send and receive emails and create word processing documents just by using your voice. Lots of people at home and work do use voice recognition to produce written work of a high standard.

Would a touch screen benefit me?

It depends on the severity of the tremor. If you have fairly good arm and finger control then it might be a good idea but if you do have quite a pronounced tremor using a touch screen might actually cause more difficulties. Unfortunately it is very difficult to change the sensitivity of a touch screen.

Case Study: Veronica slows down her mouse

Veronica called us to say that she had lots of difficulties with double clicking the mouse and not being able to use the mouse accurately.  We talked her through changing the settings of the mouse to make it a bit slower so it is easier for her to be more accurate. We also pointed her towards some software which would do the clicking for her. This is called Dwell Click 2 and is fairly inexpensive to buy.


How can we help?

AbilityNet provides a range of services to help disabled people and older people who have tremors:

  • Call our free Helpline. Our friendly, knowledgeable staff will discuss any kind of computer problem and do their best to come up with a solution. We’re open Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm on 0800 269 545.
  • If you are in work your employer has a responsibility to make Reasonable Adjustment.   For more details on this have a look at www.abilitynet.org.uk/ctod and www.cleartalentsatwork.com
  • Arrange a home visit. We have a network of AbilityNet ITCanHelp volunteers who can help if you have technical issues with your computer systems. They can come to your home, or help you over the phone.
  • We have a range of factsheets which talk in detail about technology that might help you, which can be downloaded for free. You may find our factsheets talking about voice recognition and keyboard alternatives useful.
  • My Computer My Way. Our free interactive guide explains all the accessibility features that are built into every current desktop computer, laptop, tablet and smartphone.