AbilityNet announces DSA Practitioner Days for disability advisers in Higher and Further Education

Many students do not claim the DSA support they are entitled toAbilityNet is running a series of DSA Practitioner Days in centres around the UK. These free events provide an opportunity to discuss the latest changes to Disabled Students' Allowances, meet other advisers from FE and HE and see some of the tech that AbilityNet has been recommending to the students we assess.

The next events are:

  • Newcastle, 1pm, 7 June
  • London, 1pm, 21 June
  • Birmingham, 1pm, 5 July
  • Brighton, 1pm, 19 July

We will also be holding an event in Bristol later in the year.

Book now

You can book now using the form on our site.

DSA Claim It! campaign

Join our campaign to make sure everyone who needs extra support knows about DSAWe will also be sharing more details of our ongoing DSA Claim It Campaign, which is helping to reach anyone who could benefit from extra support.

How to make your computer easier to use when living with Parkinson's

Parkinsons Awareness Week 2016Must read: If you have tremors, changing these settings could make it easier to use your iPhone or iPad.

It’s weird. I work on the Helpline at AbilityNet so I talk a lot to people who have Parkinson’s disease, but I never for one moment imagined that my dad would end up having the condition. 

While my dad has a very mild form of Parkinson's, it still causes him issues sometimes, especially with his movement and speech. At the moment he doesn't really need any help to use the computer, but it's good to know that someone with Parkinson's can adapt their system to their particular needs.

For many people with Parkinson's it is shaking and tremors that cause problems when using the computer. The good news is that with a little bit of tweaking you can still use your computer effectively.

How many people have Parkinson's in the UK?

According to Parkinsons UK there are 127,000 people in the UK with the condition, which works out as one in every 500.  Most people with the condition are over 50 but younger people can have the disease too. Famous people with Parkinson's have included Muhammad Ali, Johnny Cash, Billy Connolly (pictured) and Michael J Fox.

Common questions about Parkinson's and computing

I have issues because I accidentally press the keys lots of times, even when I don't mean to. What can I do to help myself?

If your tremors cause you issues, then you could consider turning the Bounce Keys function on.  This will help you control the number of keystrokes you make. You could also look at getting a keyboard with larger keys to minimise the chance of typing the wrong key. 

Billy Connolly

I can use the keyboard fairly well but my poor arm movement means the mouse is just far too quick for me. What can I do?

You can slow down the mouse just by following these simple instructions. You can do more to change the mouse settings then you might think.

My hands are very shaky, but my voice is pretty good.  I've heard about talking to my computer but it sounds complicated. Is it?

In a word....no. If you have a computer running Windows Vista onwards you have voice recognition installed. It is fairly simple to set-up too.  If you train voice recognition to recognise your voice it will probably take about 45 minutes to do the initial set-up. Then if you spend an hour or two every day for a week using voice recognition, by the end of it you will have a good grasp of how to use it.  We've got some easy to follow instructions on how to get started. There's also a guide on the Apple site for Mac users.

Top tips for easier computing

Changing the settings within the control panel can be really useful. For example, if you find you are getting too many characters when you hit a key you can always adjust the filter keys setting so you only get one character.  Slowing down the way the mouse works too might be useful. If clicking the mouse is difficult you can alter the double click speed.

There is also cheap software called Dwell Clicker 2  which means you don’t need to do any clicking whatsoever if you are using a PC, If you are using a Mac there is some software called Dwell Click which might suit your requirements.

My Computer My Way

Vic called us to say that he was having difficulties using the keyboard on his computer. He likes to keep in contact with his daughter and grandchildren in Canada.

We steered him towards our My Computer My Way resources and explained that he could easily follow the step-by-step instructions to adapt the computer for his needs. Now Vic is able to send emails to tell his family what he has been up to.


How can AbilityNet help?

AbilityNet provides a range of free 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.
  • You can also arrange a home visit. We have a network of AbilityNet ITCanHelp volunteers who will work on technical issues with your computer systems. They can come to your home, or help you over the phone.
  • We also have a range of free factsheets which talk in detail about technology that might help you. You may find our factsheets about voice recognition and keyboard alternatives useful.
  • My Computer My Way is a free interactive guide to all the accessibility features built into current desktops, laptops, tables and smartphones.

AbilityNet IT volunteer helps 80-year-old-Ruth trace long lost brother

In February, AbilityNet was contacted by 80-year-old Ruth from Lincolnshire who had been told by Age UK about the free computer help available via our IT Can Help service. Ruth worked as a nurse until she was 77 and has a zest for life, but has recently become less mobile following heart surgery. She needed help using her laptop, so AbilityNet sent local IT Can Help volunteer Allan (pictured) around.

Allan IT Can Help volunteer“I have a newish computer that I probably only switch on about once a week, but I'd never quite worked out how to use email and do certain other things on it,” says Ruth. "Allan helped me with this and also showed me how to do online shopping. I used to drive to town to do my shopping until just a few weeks ago, but haven't been able to recently as I've become a little more frail.”

Allan, who works on creating large scale IT systems in his day job, became a volunteer with IT Can Help more than five years ago and has been visiting Ruth once a week since February to get her more comfortable using her computer.

Connections, support and shopping

“I've volunteered with a number of different people through the service over the years,” says Allan. “I am passionate about technology and wanted to do something for people who are challenged by IT, so I contacted the council to ask what I could do and they put me in touch with AbilityNet.

“Ruth is a fantastic lady with an interesting life and I've really enjoyed getting to know her and being able to support her. I've put a few shortcuts on her computer desktop so she can get quick and easy access to online shops.

“She was also unsure how to open and read her email, but can now do this. As well as this I've advised her on internet security and protecting her information,” says the volunteer. Ruth adds: “These things aren't second nature when you don't use a computer often.”

Beyond the call of duty

But the help Allan's offered goes above and beyond helping with IT tasks. “It sounds morbid, but it's not - there's a piece of music I want one day at my funeral," Ruth explains. "I've tried to find it for ages. Allan found it for me. Not only this, he has also helped me find my long lost brother who I haven't seen for 20 years.”

Allan explains: “When I first visited Ruth I was shocked at how youthful she was for an 80-year-old lady who had just had heart surgery – a real inspiration to us all. I usually stay for a chat and Ruth started telling me about her childhood and how the only family she had left was her brother who she hadn't seen for two decades. I was determined to find him and paid £5 for the local electoral roll after an internet searched gave me more information about where he might live. They are now hoping to meet up.

“Ruth is a big classical music fan and I also helped her find her favourite classical music track to complete her funeral plan – it was by Clare College Choir.”

Allan will keep visiting Ruth for a while longer to help with her computer needs before IT Can Help matches him with another of the many people who struggle with IT in the UK. “I really enjoy every single visit I make for IT Can Help,” says Allan. “It brings me so much joy to be able to help people with their computers. I get so much back from it.”

A brief history of accessibility on Twitter in ten tweets to mark Twitter's 10th birthday

In the 10 years since the first tweet was sent, people with disabilities have loved Twitter, sometimes loathed it and then often loved it again. Here's the story so far in 10 tweets.

Twitter is ten today1/10 Twitter put social media in mainstream + gave people with #disabilities easy way for voice to be heard

Social media is a powerful platform for those whose voice isn't often heard loud and clear. The advent of Twitter, with its bite-sized info and immediacy, made it incredibly easy for everyone to get their views out  without having to set up a website or acquire skills that often proved challenging for all but the really tech-savvy.

2/10 Twitter started as plain text only - great for accessibility (also known as #a11y).  These days it's harder!

Text is the ultimate inclusive medium. It can have its colours or style altered to ease legibility, be readily enlarged without becoming pixelated for those with a vision impairment, or read out by screen-reading software for those who are blind or have severe dyslexia. Twitter, in its original plain-text form was fantastically inclusive.

3/10 Twitter.com interface proved awkward for accessibility, leading to alternatives like easychirp.com being hatched

EasyChirp offered an accessible way to access tweetsTwitter.com was originally very challenging from an accessibility point of view - ironic really considering it had at its heart the simplest of content. Other sites like Easychirp.com filled the gap with an easy-to-use interface for reading and drafting tweets.

4/10 Twitter still ideal platform for breaking news + hot tips on #assistivetech + #disability matters #a11y #axs

Hashtags like #a11y and #axs sprung up and suddenly Twitter became the place to follow breaking disability and assistive tech news across the globe – and it’s been the place ever since.

5/10 Trolls arrived early on Twitter - meaning people with disabilities experience more abuse than ever

No social media platform is without its trolls. Trolls are people who may or may not think twice about saying horrible things to people’s faces, but who have no qualms about saying them virtually. People with disabilities aren't spared - but we still love Twitter nonetheless.

6/10 Twitter's openness to 3rd parties to develop apps made for a plethora of choice at one point – and choice is good for #a11y

At first Twitter opened its ‘firehose’ to all and sundry. The firehose is the full stream of tweets and associated data that 3rd-party developers could take advantage of in developing fully-functional Twitter clients (websites and apps) and many of them (particularly on iOS) were very accessible. This was especially handy considering that Twitter.com and the official Twitter apps on both Android and iOS weren’t very accessible at all.

Don't tweet pictures of text! slide from presentation about accessible social media7/10 Now that Twitter users love sharing pics of food, cats and holidays, blind followers feel left out in the cold

It had to happen. The days of predominantly text-only tweets soon came to an end with the advent of mobile data plans with decent data allowances and soon every other tweet was an unlabelled image. For me as a blind person Twitter soon became just like the rest of the internet – partly fair and partly fowl (see what I did there?).

AbilityNet would love to see more Optical Character Recognistion (OCR) and object recognition on social media platforms, so we know what's in photos - even more so now that we have quoted tweets, see Tweet 9/10 below.

8/10 But Twitter's 'openness' flew away. Many devs had their wings clipped + far fewer 3rd-party apps. A peck in the eye for #a11y

Twitter turned off the firehose as they sought to establish a better business model for themselves. Developers began to fall away as their access to tweets became more limited and for a while the flight path for Twitter took a distinct nose-dive.

9/10 Quoted tweets + pics of text on Twitter pushed blind, visually impaired and dyslexic users out of the nest

Now that tweeters can retweet others’ tweets by including them as an image of text, it poses a problem. Many users with disabilities such as a vision impairment or dyslexia need to alter text to suit their needs. They're missing the juicy worms of the original tweet and are left with the breadcrumbs…

10/10 twitter.com is now hot on #a11y but tweets are either golden eggs or a poop in the eye! #twitter10 bit.ly/1Rb6NT9

Twitter.com is now mostly accessible, particularly for screenreaders. But the future is still uncertain for accessible social media. Facebook has upped its game and is even taking strides in auto-labelling your uploaded pics and recognising faces. Youtube isn’t doing an ostrich-impression when it comes to accessibility either - apart from the ever-irksome auto-playing of videos, which is totally confusing for screenreaders.

For Twitter to keep its beak ahead of the flock it’ll need to keep a sharp eye on #a11y and stop ruffling the feathers of some of its most avid fans.

Nominations open for AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards 2016

Celebrating people who use tech to make the world a better placeNominations are open for the AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards 2016 – our annual showcase for the amazing people who use digital technology to make the world a better place. Entry is free and open to any business, charity, individual or public body with a base in the UK. Winners will be announced at a glittering ceremony hosted by BT in July.

This is the 6th year of the Awards, which are organised by AbilityNet and supported by BT and a host of businesses and charities. The Awards include the AbilityNet Accessibility Award for people who use tech to help disabled people, a Digital Health Award and an award for young people.

Last year’s winners included Raspberry Pi, who won the Judges’ Award for their micro computer and education programme. Open Bionics won the Accessibility Award for using 3D scanning and printing work to reduce the cost of prosthetics for disabled people, and what3words won the BT Ingenious Award for an innovative global address technology.

The Awards were launched at BT Tower on 15 March and featured a brilliant demonstration by Rachel Moat who won IT Volunteer of the Year 2015 for her amazing work with The Seashell Trust, a school for children with complex needs and severe learning difficulties. She is a musician who created customised musical technology that encourages students to interact with their surroundings. Her sound-based games are highly tactile and include musical bowls of spaghetti.

Rachael Moat, IT Volunteer of the Year 2015

Entry is free and open now

More details about all past winners and how to enter can be found at www.tech4goodawards.com.

Entries are open until 6th May and anyone can nominate themselves or someone else in any one of seven categories. Judges include business people, charities, academics and journalists and others with specialist knowledge of how tech is used for social good. This year's categories are:

  • AbilityNet Accessibility Award
  • BT MyDonate Fundraising Award
  • Community Impact Award
  • Digital Health Award
  • Digital Skills Award
  • IT Volunteer of the Year Award
  • Young Pioneer Award

Enter now at www.tech4goodawards.com

Is Microsoft changing the game for accessible browsers?

A raft of new internet accessibility work by Microsoft will make the web user-experience for people with disabilities far smoother and more sophisticated. AbilityNet has a long-standing relationship with Microsoft, including user-testing its products for more than a decade. It's clear the company is striving to become market-leaders in web accessibility and there is much to be excited about, not least in their innovative approach to using APIs. 

Microsoft Edge: accessibility will leap forward

One of the most significant developments is their work on Microsoft Edge, the new Windows 10 web browser. In particular they're developing an API (Application Programme Interface) for assistive technology to plug into, which could be a real game changer.

Microsoft Edge page screenshot

In her blog earlier this month, Jenny Lay-Flurrie, chief accessibility officer for Microsoft explained: “We’re working hard on our new browser, Microsoft Edge.

"By the end of 2016, the browser will have improved browsing and reading experiences, not just for those using our built-in assistive technologies, such as Narrator and Magnifier, but also for people who use other commercial assistive technology”.

Having looked at their thinking I'd say that APIs are a smart way to go.

Is this goodbye to slow screenreading for blind people?

At the moment, screenreaders (often used by those with a visual impairment) have to look at the source code of a web page and then recreate the content in a more readable way. Without such translation a blind user wouldn't know what was a button or a link, and the speech would read across multiple columns, making text meaningless.

This approach involves a lot of continual development work on the part of third-party screenreader manufacturers to keep up with each new browser version and new web technology. And, it can be a little hit and miss in terms of results for the user.

The big shift is that Microsoft's new API will do the translation more quickly and smoothly so that screens can be read more easily and efficiently.

Moreover, separating the process from the ‘front end’ of the browser will mean that changes in the User Interface (UI ) won’t necessarily affect what is delivered through the API.

Every second counts...

For me, as a blind person, the internet can be a bit of a nightmare. That's why I'm looking forward to these improvements, especially in speed gains.

It currently takes up to a minute after clicking a link for the browser to download every byte of source code, images and CSS. Only then can my screenreader build the virtual version and finally begin to read a page.

With this new approach I'll get web pages read to me more quickly and reliably, rather than the haphazard way third-party interpretation I sometimes get at the moment.

Many screenreader manufacturers have large teams of developers and do an excellent, if often frustratingly slow job. Others have fewer resources and the result is less consistent. But with the resource that Microsoft’s Accessibility Team has at their disposal, I have a lot of confidence in what can be achieved.

Prof Stephen Hawking and switch access scanning

The API won’t just benefit screenreader users, though. It will work for any assistive technology, including voice recognition, switch access - which is used by Prof Stephen Hawking - magnification software, and of course the good old keyboard.

Stephen Hawking

Tabbing through a typical web page on a keyboard it's easy to lose focus or struggle to access a drop-down menu. Having an API with the commitment and smarts of Microsoft behind it should give everyone better access to even the most complex of websites or web apps.

Dynamically changing content, fly out menus and embedded widgets should all now be seen in a new light and I for one, as a blind user, am truly excited.

Disabled user testing is vital

Alongside this shift in Microsoft's thinking it's hugely important to AbilityNet and our extensive community of users with a disability or impairment across the world, that technology companies publicly commit to the accessibility of their products. To achieve best practice, they must also employ a wide range of users to test their products and services, and they must listen to them as early in the design process as possible.

Microsoft is significantly stepping up the testing it is doing with users who have disabilities – and AbilityNet is extremely proud to be a part of that process. Watch our blog for future developments. We'll be sure to keep you posted.

Learn more about our approach to accessibility testing.

(Pictured: Stephen Hawking)

AbilityNet supports University Mental Health Day

Students can get help from DSA for mental health issuesYesterday was University Mental Health day and our social media feeds are full of  posts about events  going on around the country at different universities. AbilityNet is proud to support this day because we realise that mental health and physical health and equally important. Mental health is a vital part of achieving your full potential in higher education.

For many people, university is thetime of your life when you can move somewhere new and have lots of new friends and experiences. What could be better, right? But for a number of people, being a student isn't a happy experience.

Research carried out by the NUS in 2013 found that 92% of students had experienced some kind of mental health issue, which often includes feeling down, stressed and demotivated.

Of course, there are all sorts of pressures on students which can affect mental health. Coursework can be a huge pressure.  I remember my third year being a blur of dissertation planning, tutorials and endless re-writing and editing.

Help for disabled students under pressure

I know a lot of my fellow students found it really difficult and AbilityNet is particularly aware of the impact this pressure can have ondisabled students. Imagine trying to write and plan a dissertation when you have dyslexia. Or the stress that you'd get from trying to use a keyboard if you have juvenile arthritis  The physical symptoms of a disability may cause pain, but the mental health issues can be just as debilitating.

Woman looking out of windowMany students don't realise that Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) can help with mental health needs. This is a grant (which you don¹t have to repay) that can pay for specialist technology and support to help you address specific conditions  affecting your studies.

Having the right support in place can help manage stress and DSA funding can provide practical support which can help overcome the challenges. This could include technology which can make it easier to work effectively -ie digital recorders to capture lecture notes. This makes them much easier to access afterwards and can help deal with the pressure of keeping track of key information whilst under stress.

Where to find help

Get your entries ready for the Tech4Good Awards

Now in our 6th year, the Tech4Good Awards, sponsored by BT, have highlighted over 130 individuals and organisations across the country, who have all shown innovative and exciting ways of using technology to make the world a better place.

Since 2011 we’ve received over 1,000 entries, from companies large and small. Past winners include Code Club, Raspberry Pi and Stephen Hawking, and we’ve seen 3D-printed bionic limbs, apps that support LGBT teenagers, and an extraordinary use for spaghetti hoops. We are sure that 2016 will bring even more exciting examples of tech for good.

Awards organiser Mark Walker of AbilityNet says:

"AbilityNet's Tech4Good Awards shine a light on the amazing work of people and organisations who are using digital technology to make the world a better place. We want to recognise their hard work and ingenuity, celebrate their success and share their stories to help and inspire others.

Over the past six years we've seen some amazing examples of the good that technology can do - from low cost 3D-printed limbs to talking cashpoints and an app that diagnoses cataracts. Every year our judging panel of tech, charity and business specialists face an incredibly difficult job picking the winners from a host of incredible entries. We're looking forward to seeing another bumper crop of entries again this year."

Entry opens Tuesday 15th March, and is open to any individual and organisation in the UK. We want to hear about what you’re doing, and who you are supporting - or you could nominate someone else. Read last year’s blog to find out what organiser Mark Walker’s top tips for an Award-winning entrycan be found on the Tech4Good Awards website.