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.

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.”