Disability campaigner Lord Rix dies

Lord Rix was a tireless camapigner for the rights of disabled peopleAlong with many other disability organisations and campaigners in the UK, the staff, trustees and volunteers at AbilityNet were very sad to hear the news of the death of Lord Rix. His tireless campaigning helped inspire positive changes in the lives of many disabled people and his work with Mencap and other organisations was a cornerstone for much of what has been achieved by the disability movement.

Our thoughts are with his family and we know that his legacy will continue through the work of every organisation that supports and works with disabled people.

Happy 25th birthday dear world wide web

  • 1990's computer and monitorAlex Barker is AbilityNet's Advice and Information Officer

Facebook has been announcing with glee that the world wide web is 25 years old today.  Can you see the irony?  Just imagine a world without internet.

Let’s take a look back to August 1991. Of course because we have the internet I can quickly do a search on Google to see what happened 25 years ago. Bryan Adams was at number 1 with his monster hit “Everything I do (I do it for you)" from the Robin Hood movie starring Kevin Costner and Alan Rickman. Bread cost 54 pence and a pint of beer cost £1.37.

Without the web I’d have to make a quick trip to the public library and search through copies of old newspapers on microfiche to find this information. Or those big reference books that always seemed to be out of date, even if they were new.

Or worse you’d have to go down to the basement and search through old dusty filing cabinets. 

Within the dusty books the name Tim Berners-Lee might have been found. He worked at CERN in Switzerland and in 1980 he had created a searchable database that used the concept of “hypertext. Hypertext is the concept of being able to build text-based links from one document to another.

His dream of the web was that it would be a “common information space in which we communicate by sharing information. Its universality is essential: the fact that a hypertext link can point to anything, be it personal, local or global, be it draft or highly polished” Source: (https://www.w3.org/People/Berners-Lee/FAQ.html).

He then goes on to say that he didn’t invent the internet. That was designed by a couple of other people named Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn who came up with the idea of “IP” or Internet Protocol.  They worked out how to unify data and to make data sharing easier.

Alex is AbilityNet's Advice and Information OfficerThe web has transformed our lives but as a disabled person the internet has been such a revelation to me.

I’ve got a fairly rare condition but I’ve managed to meet other people with the same condition. The internet made it possible.  My fiancée has the same condition as me and she lives in the southern United States.  Without the internet we probably wouldn’t have met. 

I’ve been to see her a couple of times recently and it is great to have the ability to book flights from the comfort of your own home or to apply for your American visa waiver early in the morning.  It makes things like travel so much easier because you can book your own travel as opposed to going to a travel agent and spending most of your morning trying to work out different permutations.

If your mobility isn’t great you can use the internet to do your banking or to buy your shopping. You can have it delivered to you.  No need to struggle out in December to do your Christmas shopping. Just do it online….so much easier. Less crowds and probably a bit warmer too.

No-one claims that the web is perfect. But it does save you time and effort. It also allows you to get in touch with people who have shared interests and collaborate on projects. AbilityNet do find it shocking that around 5 million people have never used the web. We're advocates on people having acces to the web because it provides you with useful information

I'm going to go for a walk now in the sunshine. But before I go I'll use a certain music streaming service to download a certain Bryan Adams song...

Six epic fails: Rio 2016 Olympics website misses accessibility medals


AbilityNet's accessibility team, which works with top companies and organisations to ensure websites and apps meet accessibility requirements, has given some of the main pages on the www.rio2016.com Olympics website a 'fail'. They found a host of issues which limit the accessibility and inclusivity of the website for users with sight loss and other disabilities. It's common for large public and corporate websites to fail in these areas, as we have regularly discussed.

Here are just a few issues we would like to see rectified. Ideally in time for the Paralympics 2016.


Gold, Silver or Bronze? We can't tell

Table columns are not labelled within the site, so for example in the top five countries' table, the column titles denoting the colour of the medals aren't labelled. It means people using a screenreader don't know what medal Usain Bolt and other champions are winning.

Medal and scoring info unclear  
Data on the site is presented in non data tables – including information on medal count and schedule, meaning the information was read out in a jumbled order by our screenreader.

Unclear carousel content
Like many homepages, the www.rio2016.com has a revolving carousel of news and content on its homepage, but once again, poor labelling in the Content Management System (CMS) means people with sight loss will struggle to know what's going on the page because it's read out in a jumbled order. 

Poorly labelled / unlabelled images
The olympics' web team has not labelled, or hasn't properly labelled, the detail in photos and images, so those with sight loss are unclear who is in photos or what the photos depict.

Poorly labelled buttons
Our accessibility team used Jaws screenreader to check the Olympic site's homepage. They found the screenreader read out 'cancel' and 'ok' buttons, but it was not obvious what these buttons referred to. Other buttons were not read out at all.

Missing invisible menu bar
Some sites have an 'accessibility page' – usually linked from the homepage - where a visitor will be told how the site can be accessed for people with disabilities. The Olympics' site mentions an invisible menu bar for people with disabilities, but does not explain what this menu is for so our tester was left in the dark. 

A number of top companies and organisations use our disability and accessibility testing service. Find out more here. 

Robin Christopherson honoured with Tech4Good Special Award 2016

Photo of Robin ChristophersonAbilityNet’s Head of Digital Inclusion Robin Christopherson has been awarded the Tech4Good Special Award for his outstanding personal contribution to inclusive technology.  Robin is an inspirational speaker and a global expert on inclusive and accessible digital design - changing the lives of disabled people everywhere by harnessing the amazing power of technology.

The award was presented by Liz Williams, BT's Director of Tech Literacy and Education Programmes, who said:

“Robin holds a mirror up to disability and technology and enables us to really understand the difference that technology can make in people’s lives.  Robin enthrals and inspires and educates everyone he encounters and is genuinely a global expert in his field and I am delighted that he has been chosen to receive the Tech4Good Special Award."

Robin Christopherson said:

“My initial reaction was surprise, shock and honour. After the initial shock wore off I’m left with a profound sense of honour that I’ve been recognised in this very special way for simply doing what I love doing. I hope I’ve had an impact upon other people’s lives in the same way that technology has had on mine.”

Robin gave a speech at the Awards Ceremony, reviewing the latest advances in tech and how they are helping disabled people.

Nigel Lewis, CEO of AbilityNet said:

“By being honoured with Tech4Good Special Award Robin Christopherson has received the professional recognition he deserves for his overwhelming contribution to inclusive technology. Robin inspires everyone he meets, from business executives to policy-makers, about the incredible power that technology has for changing disabled people’s lives for the better. We are thrilled and delighted for Robin.”

The Tech4Good Awards celebrate people who use technology to make the world a better place. Previous winners of the Tech4Good Special Award include some of the world’s leading influencers in technology including Professor Stephen Hawking, Dame Steve Shirley and Jimmy Wales. 

Robin regularly blogs on the Abilitynet website - check out his latest stories about technology and disability.

Common questions about back pain and computing answered

Back pain is a term that encompasses lots of different conditions, which might include chronic conditions such as arthritis or temporary conditions such as a pulled muscle in your back. According to Bupa, one in three people will have back pain at some time of our life.  When it comes to computing and back pain we are often asked for hints and tips and, of course we’d always recommend that you get checked out by a medical professional.

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If you have chronic back pain and find it difficult to go out because you have impaired mobility you can use a computer to make it easier for you to obtain goods and services over the internet. A good example is online shopping.  Lots of people find it really difficult and tiring to get shopping from the supermarket. However a lot of the leading supermarket chains now offer online delivery and they will bring the shopping right to the door.

Also if you find that you have back pain you might find that using alternative technology can help you to make better use of your computer.  An important point to remember is that posture and seating can also have an impact on your back.

I have really severe back pain and need to take a lot of time lying down.  How can I use a computer?

There are really two answers to this question. The first answer is that you can use your compute as much or as little as you need. If you can only use your computer in little micro-bursts then that is fine.  We’ve had people calling the helpline who can only use their computer for 10 minutes at a time.  If that strategy works for you then that is great.

Lots of people do use voice recognition when they are reclining in bed. As long as you can see the computer screen, you can effectively control your computer.  Some clients find that they benefit from a screen that is mounted on a bracket so it is easier for them to see.   With the advent of new, smaller technology you can even prop yourself up on your elbows or arms to use voice recognition.   However whatever you decide to do you need to make sure your computer use is not causing you unnecessary pain.

I want to keep my keyboarding skills up but I find hitting the keys sometimes causes me pain. What can I do?

There are many different types of keyboards available with differing functionality. Some of require a really light touch and have a rubberised keyboard.   There are also different sized keyboards and a lot of people with back problems like to use keyboards that are known as “compact keyboards” which are considerably smaller than a traditional keyboard.   Another useful thing to consider might be Auto complete and auto text

Case study

Ben has got severe back pain and he has had to take early retirement from his manual job. He still wants to use a computer.to keep in touch with friends and family. We chatted through different options including voice recognition which is built in his computer. He worked through our My Computer My Way section and managed to start voice recognition and use it effectively. We also suggested that he used a more ergonomic chair and took more breaks in his work.

How can we help?

AbilityNet provides a range of services to help disabled people and older people.

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 employers have 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. A free interactive guide to all the accessibility features built into current desktops, laptops, tables and smartphones.

Top tips on hearing loss and computing

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Although I can’t hear very well my sight is fine.  Is there any way of having captions on the screen?

Yes, there is. You can turn on the captioning service which means that you will be able to understand more quickly what the device is doing. Both Android and Apple devices have this feature.

One useful feature is that you can change the font size and colour of the caption to make it more comfortable to follow.

I wear hearing aids. Can I connect these to my portable device?

If you have an Apple device you can connect your Bluetooth hearing aids to your device. This means that your hearing aid works in conjunction with your iPhone enabling you to have easier interaction with your device.

Can a smartphone help detect noises in my house?

Later versions of the Samsung Galaxy have a useful facility where the phone will vibrate if it hears the cry of a baby or the ring of a doorbell.  If you have a wearable device from Samsung it will also send a message to that too. It is no substitute for a baby sitter though. There are apps available from the Apple store, which do the same sort of job.

Case study: Using a Blutetooth hearing aid with your phoone

Ronnie called to see if we could help his partner Brenda out. She is hard of hearing and needed some help with connecting up her Bluetooth hearing aids up to her iPhone. 

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Dave, one of our IT Can Help volunteers went out to see them in their own home and managed to help Brenda. She is now more confident in using her iPhone because she can hear it more effectively.

How can AbilityNet help?

AbilityNet provides a range of services to help disabled people and older people.

  • Call our free Helpline on 0800 269 545 and our friendly, knowledgeable staff will offer one-to-one help.
  • If you are in work your employer has a responsibility to make Reasonable Adjustments which include helping you with invisible illnesses. Find out more about how we help disabled in the workplace.
  • Arrange a home visit from one of our amazing AbilityNet ITCanHelp volunteers. 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 is our free interactive guide to all the accessibility features built into current desktops, laptops, tables and smartphones.

Award winners using technology to make the world a better place

The amazing people who use digital technology to improve the lives of others were recognised recently at the AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards 2016 at BT Centre, London. Now in their sixth year, the awards are organised by AbilityNet and supported by BT and celebrate charities, businesses and volunteers from across the UK.

The panel of judges brings together experts from business, charity and the tech industry. They picked the winners for seven of the award categories and the pubic chose the People's Award winner.

Meet the winners

Nine-year-old Arnav Sharma was one of the big stars of the night.Arnav Sharma, age 9 He won the Tech4Good People’s Award for his AsthmaPi kit, which helps people with asthma to understand, diagnose and medicate for the condition. He was also a finalist in the BT Young Pioneer Award and topped the night by winning the audience vote for the Winner of Winners Award.

Arnav studied the causes, diagnosis and effect of asthma and came up with a unique solution: the AsthmaPi kit. Using hardware including Raspberry Pi and programmed using Python and C++, Arnav’s kit can help parents of children suffering from asthma and those not sure about the diagnosis of asthma.

Arnav said: “I love coding and this was my first attempt at creating something.  So, I am very happy to have won the Tech4 Good awards especially as all other finalists were so amazing. I also hope that winning the awards will help me make the Asthma Pi available for asthma sufferers to use!”

The AbilityNet Accessibility Award was won by Wayfindr, eWATERPay scooped the BT Young Pioneer Award and the BT MyDonate Fundraising Award went to Neighbourly.

SafetyNets/Ugly Mugs picked up the Community Impact Award, the Digital Health Award was claimed by MyWard and the Digital Skills Award went to BBC micro:bit and Maureen Johnston won the IT Volunteer of the Year Award.

AbilityNet’s Head of Digital Inclusion Robin Christopherson was honoured with the Tech4Good Special Award for his extensive experience in inspiring and educating people across the world.

Switching on Pokémon Go for disabled gamers

Pokémon hunters come in all shapes and sizes – including on wheels. Let’s look at how easy it is for them to catch the elusive critters using their preferred method, which is sometimes a single switch (See more on Switch Access software here). For those who have difficulty using a mouse and keyboard, a 'switch' can be used to work a computer instead. Switches come in various styles and can be activated by certain actions including pushing, pulling, pressing, blinking, squeezing, kicking, puffing down a tube or making a noise, for example. 

Catching nearby Pokémon single-handed – or no-handed!

Can wheelchair users or people with limited or no use of their arms catch Pokémon? Tecla, who provide excellent switch access systems, similar to that used by Prof Stephen Hawking, have given Pokémon Go a road-test, as you can see on this video.

Last week we wrote a post about the Eye Tribe Tracker technology that promises to open up affordable eye-gaze access to computers, smartphones and tablets. Eye-gaze tech is fantastic but still not as tried and tested as the trusty switch as used by Stephen Hawking and tens of thousands of others. The guys at Tecla - Komodo OpenLab, based in Toronto - have been exploring how easy it is for wheelchair users with spinal injuries or multiple sclerosis to to catch Pikachu, Charmander and friends using a single switch combined with their switch access software.

Catching Pokemon's inaccessibility

As you can see from the video, the Tecla controller installed on the users' wheelchairs allow control over iOS or Android devices paired via Bluetooth. A control unit switches the target for the Tecla controller between their wheelchair and the smartphone with which they are hunting Pokémon. It also works with single or dual switches, including those that respond to light touch and ‘sip-and-puff’ switches for users with less or no mobility in their hands.

The team behind Tecla first did some testing on the use of their system with Pokémon Go in late July, but since then they've been able to run an actual field test with the help of local Toronto Tecla users Neil and James. The result? Some freshly caught Pokémon (as you can see in the video) but not without some accessibility shortcomings. 

Is Pokémon Go playing fair with inclusivity?

It’s all very well to have a fantastic method of playing an app, but when that app has some flaws in the inclusive experience for disabled users, then it might still prove too much of a challenge for many.

In our article last week Pokémon Go or Not to Go we explore some of these accessibility issues. A recent article on the accessibility of Pokémon Go by the American Federation of the Blind explains how, with a bit of tweaking, even blind users like myself could catch ‘em all. We’ll update this article with any new improvements (or decline) in the accessibility of Pokémon Go, but now it’s time to stop reading this article and start rounding up those pesky critters however you can – and the very best of virtual luck.

Next-gen eye tracking is a game changer for disabled people

Coming to a computer or tablet near you soon, Eye Tribe Tracker technology promises to take gaming to a whole new level. It's a great innovation for every gamer but it could transform the lives of disabled people - and not just those who play games. It is compact, much less expensive than previous solutions and could soon be working with other accessibility options in every mainstream laptop, desktop and mobile device. So what does this new tech offer and how could it change the lives of disabled people?

Fingers off that gadget

Most of us use our fingers to control our computers, tablets and smartphones but there are many other ways of interacting with our gadgets.

You could try voice control (“Hey Siri, what’s my next appointment?”), hand or body gestures (using Microsoft’s Kinect for your Xbox or Leap Motion for your laptop) - and at AbilityNet we’ve assessed people who use their feet to operate a trackball or all ten toes to touchtype at 100 wpm.

Technology is all about choice and it has the power to transform the lives of people who need to do things a little differently.

Keeping an eye on my tech

Another very powerful way of controlling a computer is by eye-movement alone and this is the basis of the new tracker from Eye Tribe. As well as the gaming applications it's designed for this tech could take someone who has no other way of operating a computer or smartphone to a whole new level

At present people who have no body movement or speech and who are only able to move their eyes can control a computer by doing a definite blink (the software ignores the unconscious blinks we do all the time). That action can start a scan through the options and menu items in an application - or all the links in a web page. When the desired item is highlighted, another blink activates it.

Many operating systems already have this capability built-in, including Windows, macOS and iOS. You can use a suitable switch to write documents, send a text or use your favourite apps - whether it’s by monitoring your blinks or activated by a muscle twitch in your cheek, as used by Prof Stephen Hawking etc.

The trouble is that this method can be incredibly time-consuming – especially where there are dozens of items on a screen or you just miss the one you wanted.

The Eye Tribe Tracker to the rescue

Eye-tracking tech is nothing new. It's been available on the PC for nearly two decades (most notably the Tobii eye-tracker) but the specialist hardware and software has cost many thousands of pounds.

Despite this it has revolutionised the lives of people with no other effective method of controlling their computer. Compared to using a blink to scroll through options you can simply look at the item you want to be activated, let your eyes dwell on it for a preset period and it will be clicked.

Dwell control has been added to MacOSX

Just like with switch control, we are now seeing elements of eye-tracking being included in mainstream operating systems such as the new dwell support in the latest version of macOS. The trouble is that special hardware such as a headband or multiple camera system is still required.

But that’s about to change.

Putting eye-tracking within reach of tablets and smartphones

Until now the two main factors preventing eye-tracking tech from coming to mobile devices was the size and price.

The good news is that Eye Tribe technology is far more compact and vastly less expensive than solutions that have come before. It is portable enough to be used with your laptop or tablet, and we may soon see it incorporated into everyday devices, alongside the accessibility settings that currently include speech output for the blind or switch control for the motor impaired.

Eyetribe has made and SDK available to developers

As well as cost and size advantages the Eye Tribe also includes an SDK (software developer kit) which means app developers only need to use a few lines of code for their apps to receive a real-time stream of eye coordinates.

Users could operate their game completely hands-free or, even more crucially, users such as Prof Hawking can put aside his switch and go for the steely gaze instead.

Keep your eyes on the prize!

This is an exciting development in mainstream tech that could be big news for people with very specific accessibility needs. It may be that tech similar to Google’s Project Tango beats the Eye Tribe in bringing eye-tracking to the smartphone – or perhaps Apple, ever-leading in accessibility, will just quietly incorporate it into a future iPhone.

But whatever way it develops, keep your eyes firmly fixed on this space.

Top ten apps for visually impaired students

visual impairmant and sight loss affects millions of people in the UKStarting university is a leap into an independent and self-reliant way of life. For students who are blind or visually impaired, some forward-thinking is essential to ensure that you have the right tools to ease this transition. The good news is that modern technology and smartphones have helped to close the gap between disabled students and their peers, particularly in the form of apps. Here's our selection to get you started.

Several are free in their basic form, some cost a few pounds and one is a heavyweight option. And don't miss number 10 which is an app that lists accessible apps.

DON'T FORGET DSA: Any UK student in HE or FE with a visual impairment could be eligible for extra funding from Disabled Students Allowances, which may cover some of these costs and will also recommend other changes to make sure your education is accessible.

AccessNote on the iTunes store1. AccessNote (Free)

The American Foundation for the Blind launched the official iOS notetaker, AccessNote. It works in collaboration with VoiceOver to create a systematic, feature-rich note taking aid.

2. Dragon Dictation (Free) on iOS and Android

Dictate your message, adding punctuation verbally, and receive it on screen instantly. Your delivery options for this message include text, email, copy-and-paste, and social media websites.

3. Evernote (Free)

The Evernote app stores voice notes, photographs and text providing users with a medium to share them between multiple devices. Photographs are scanned for text using VoiceOver support.

4. Kindle app (Free)

The Kindle app allows people to download books from Amazon.com. Supportive features for those with visual impairment include large print, computer generated speech and human narrators.

5. Audible (Free trial then monthly fee)

The Audible app is available on both iPhone and Android devices, providing easy access to a huge selection of audio books including academic titles.

Talking scientific calculator as it appears on the iPad6. Talking Scientific Calculator iOS (£3.99) and Android (free)

The talking calculator has a range of voices to choose from and allows you to record your own voice. It works with VoiceOver for the blind, or has a high contrast options for those with limited sight. Features include large colourful buttons and the option to use speech for answers, button names and formulas. Button names are read aloud as your finger moves over the screen. Double tapping a button enters the number onscreen.

7. Google Translate (Free)

Google Translate transforms words and phrases users say aloud into a specified foreign language. This function is particularly useful to visually impaired students.

8. KNFB Reader App (£79.99)

This app is a financial commitment, but promises to be ‘fast, accurate and efficient’. It converts printed text into speech to enable access to both single and multiple page documents. It promises to work with ‘the touch of a single button’ and is facilitated by ‘a field of view report, automatic page detection, and tilt control.’

9. Alarmed: Reminders + Timers (iOS Free + paid for extras)

Fully accessible with VoiceOver, this app is an excellent tool for organisation. It includes a notes area with reminders, a repeating alarm feature, a snooze option and a multi-use timer. Advanced features for a small cost provide you with the ability to set interval timers for doing repetitive chores, which could be used to set revision breaks.

10. And finally... an app about accessible apps

The Braille Institute has launched an iOS app called ViA (Visually Impaired Apps), which identifies the Pad and iPhone compatible apps that are useful for those with impaired sight. It enables users to sift through the 500,000 plus apps in the App Store and highlights those that were built to provide functionality to people with limited or no vision