Down's Syndrome and Computing

The needs of people with Down's Syndrome vary enormously and there may be many ways that computers could help them with communications at work, at home or in education. This blog covers just a few of them and is written to mark World Downs Syndrome Day on March 21.

Down's Syndrome, also known as Down's Syndrome in the USA is a genetic condition that typically causes some level of learning disability and a characteristic range of physical features. Source: There are over 40,000 people in the UK with the condition. Source:

Top tips for easier computing for people with Down's Syndrome

It’s difficult to be specific about what the challenges and obstacles that someone who has Down’s Syndrome might face but whatever they are ther will almost certainly be there will be software or hardware adaptations available that will help.

World Downs Syndrome Day is 21 MarchIf you have the condition you might want to use a different keyboard (perhaps alphabetical) or alternative pointing device to make it easier for you to use the computer.  You may even want to change the way the keyboard reacts when you hit a key. Ifg you're not sure how to do that check out My Computer My Way, AbilityNet's interactive guide to all the many ways you can change setting in your computer, tablet or smartphone

You also may benefit from some software which helps you plan and write your work and have text spoken out to you.  Mind mapping software such as Freemind ( or Inspiration ( is useful for making notes on content that you want to include in your work. You could even use the outline feature in Word to help you make brief notes.

If you find reading a bit difficult you could change the font style ( for one that is easier for you to read. You can also get software which will actually speak text out for you. ( Best of all, this package is free!

One of the ways that people who have Down’s Syndrome communicate is via Makaton which is a sign language vocabulary. There’s a Makaton-based app for this which will run on an Ipad although please note this is not free.

Case study

Imran’s dad called our helpline as Imran had some difficulties with using the keyboard. We suggested using an alphabetic keyboard and some word prediction software so that Imran could effectively use the computer and do his homework for college.

If he gets tired he can also get the software to read back what Imran has written. After he’s done his homework he can chat to his friends on social networking sites.

How can we help?

AbilityNet helps disabled people use computers and the internet at work, at home and in education. There are a few ways that we can help:

  • 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.
  • 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 list of free hints and tips that you can use to make your time on the computer that bit easier.

Five golden rules for compliant alt text

Are you using alt text properly?

Inconsistent use of alt text is one of the most common problems found in our web audits. These golden rules make your alt tags more useful to your site visitors and mean your site is more likely to be legally compliant. These rules are aimed at content editors but may also be useful for anyone producing content on the web.

  • Rule 1: Every <img> must have an alt= attribute
  • Rule 2: Describe the information, not the picture
  • Rule 3: Active images require descriptive alt text.
  • Rule 4: Images that contain information require descriptive alt text.
  • Rule 5: Decorative images should have empty alt text.

What is "alt text"?

Alt text is a text alternative defined for images. The typical image is coded in HTML in the following form: 

<img alt="text alternative">

You might never actually see the code of the page when you are editing your web site or when you are adding new content, instead you will probably use a CMS (Content Management System) of some kind. Whatever you are using to add content to your web site, when you add an image you should get asked for "alt text" or a text alternative (it may be called slightly differently, but you should be asked for some kind of name for the image, chances are this is the alt text).

What is the reason for alt text?

Not all users can see the images. Disabled visitors to your site may be using assistive technology like screen readers or other text to speech software which reads the page out loud, and this software will read the alt text instead of the image. There are other situations when the alt text is used too, e.g. if a user has images turned off (e.g. because they use a very slow internet connection – still happens occasionally!) then they will see the alt text instead of the image. 

There are other ways how images can be implemented, e.g. it is possible to use CSS styles to add background images, but this is usually done by the front-end developers and not by content editors, and will therefore not be covered as part of this article. We will concentrate on alt text of traditional <img> images here.

So what do you need to do?

Every image must have the alt attribute included:

Rule 1: Every <img> must have an alt= attribute 
There is no exception to this. The <img> element must always contain the alt= attribute. It doesn't matter what the image is used for, or what it shows, or even how small it is.
What text you should use for the alt attribute depends on the type of image and is explained below, but you always include either alt="" (empty alt text) or alt="descriptive text" (descriptive alt text).
And another mistake I've seen a few times on web sites:
Rule 2: Describe the information, not the picture 
In other words, you almost never describe what the picture looks like, instead you explain the information the picture contains.
Twitter logo
The alt text for this image should be alt="Twitter" or similar (depending on the context and how the image is used), but it should not be "blue bird" or anything similar. Sounds obvious? I have seen several sites that did include descriptions of what the image shows in the alt text of an image, usually on sites that had made an effort to improve accessibility but misunderstood the requirement.

Types of images

So what exactly should the alt text be? Well, it depends on the image… 

Luckily, there are only 3 fundamental types of images you need to consider:
  1. Type 1: "Active" images, i.e. images that perform an action (links, buttons etc.)
  2. Type 2: Images that contain information
  3. Type 3: Images that are purely for decoration
When deciding how to make an image accessible, first you need to choose which type of image it is from the above list.

Type 1: Active images

What is an Active image?
It is quite easy to check if an image is active or not: An "active" image is an image that performs an action or has some functionality. The most common example is a link image, i.e. where an image is the only content of a link.
Note: When a single link contains an image as well as text then this doesn't count as an active image here.
How to implement it?
Rule 3: Active images require descriptive alt text. 
The alt text for an active image should describe the action the image performs. So if you have a link image then the alt text should tell the user what the link does. If it's a link to another page then it could be the name of that page, if the link performs an action on that page then name that action (e.g. "expand" if it expands a section, "Email this page" if it's an email link, etc.)

Type 2: Images that contain information

If the image is not an active image (type 1 above), then you need to check if it contains information or not.
Sometimes this is easy, e.g. a chart or graph will contain some information, or an image of text contains information. Unfortunately this is not always straight forward, in some cases you will need to use your judgment to decide if an image contains information or not. The essential question is, would the user miss something if you remove the image? If the user would miss out on some information without the image, then it is a "type 2" image. If the image is just for decoration, or if the same information is already in the text somewhere, then it is a decorative image (type 3).
How to implement it?
Rule 4: Images that contain information require descriptive alt text.
If an image contains information, then you need to offer this information to the user in an alternative format. If the user can't see the image, they need to get the information in another way. The alt text should be a brief description of the information.
There are some special cases for images containing information that are worth pointing out:
Images of text
Try to avoid using images of text. In the vast majority of cases where I come across images of text there is no need to use images, instead the page could just use normal text with some basic formatting applied. Reason? Some users increase the text size, images don't resize in the same way as text. If zooming into a page, images of text get blurred, normal text usually doesn't. There are many other reasons…
If you do need to use images of text, then in almost all cases the alt text will be the text shown in the image. After all, that's usually the information the image contains!
Charts, Graphs, etc
Graphs and charts usually contain a lot of information, too much to include as part of the alt text, as the alt text should be kept very brief. There will be a separate article here that looks at complex images.

Type 3: Images that are for decoration

If the image is not an active image (type 1), and if it doesn’t contain information (type 2), then it is a decorative image. Images that are only for decoration should not have any (descriptive) alt text, instead you should use the empty string as alt text.
How to implement it?
Rule 5: Decorative images should have empty alt text.
The alt text should be the empty (null) string, i.e. alt="". The code for your image should look like this:
<img alt="">
Even if the image is for decoration, it still must have the alt attribute (remember rule 1!), but it doesn't contain any text. If you read somewhere that certain images should have no alt text, what is meant is that the alt text should be empty. To repeat: Never define any <img> without the alt= attribute!
If the alt attribute contains no text (alt="") this tells screen readers to ignore the image. Screen reader users don't need to know about decorative images, it would just add to "audio clutter" on the page, so by assigning an empty alt text to an image the screen reader is told to ignore it.


Whatever you're developing or delivering remember these five golden rules to making Alt text work for your site visitors:
Rule 1: Every <img> must have an alt= attribute
Rule 2: Describe the information, not the picture
Rule 3: Active images require descriptive alt text.
Rule 4: Images that contain information require descriptive alt text.
Rule 5: Decorative images should have empty alt text.
  • Stefan Sollinger is an Accessibility and Usability consultant in the web team at AbilityNet.

Free help to make your computer system work for you

So there’s no such thing as a free lunch.  However the next best thing to free food has to be free computer technology.

AbilityNet has always been at the forefront of helping disabled people get the most from computers and the internet and other digital technology. The  people calling our helpline or using our factsheets usually don’t have too much money to spend, so they want to do things on “the cheap”. For cheap, read free. The good news is that AbilityNet has a number of free services:

If you need a guiding hand to work out what technology might be useful for you, or your clients have a look at our online Assessment Tool

A lot of people who call us aren’t aware that there are a lot of built in packages which can help you make your computer more accessible for you. 

A good example is the ability to turn the repeat rate down on the keyboard, so you don’t get multiple characters in the event that you can’t take your finger off the keyboard quickly enough.  It is your computer. You can customise it your way. ( The site is split into sections for people who have motor difficulties, sight issues or cognitive issues and it covers both Windows and Mac computers.

Step by step instructions will ensure that you can be up and running fairly quickly, and if you ever get stuck you can always call us and we can arrange for a volunteer to come out and see you, for free.

How can we help?

There are a few ways that we can help:

  • 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.
  • Arrange a home visit. We have a network of IT Support at Home 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. 
  • My Computer My Way. A list of free hints and tips that you can use to make your time on the computer that bit easier.


Raynaud's Phenomenon and Computing

What is Raynaud's Phenomenon?

Raynaud's phenomenon is a common disorder in which the small blood vessels in the extremities are over-sensitive to changes in temperature.  In some instances it can be a sign of another issue.

The effects of the condition include having white, red or blue, cold fingers, and very cold feet.

How many people in the UK have the condition?

It affects between 3-20% of the adult population worldwide, mainly females and there may be as many as ten million sufferers in the UK (Source:

Top tips for easier computing

If you have the condition it might well be a really good idea to consider looking at ways you can use the computer without using a keyboard. Voice recognition might be a viable alternative, if your fingers become too numb to use the condition. If you do want to continue to use the keyboard you could consider a soft touch keyboard, and perhaps even consider using word prediction to cut down on keyboard use. Using fingerless gloves might help too.

Case study

Zoe called us because she has Reynaud’s and uses a computer at home. She finds that her fingers get very sore fairly often and this means she cannot use the keyboard as much as she would like. We suggested using voice recognition, to take some of the pressure of using a keyboard off her. We also suggested using a light touch keyboard along with some word prediction software. This meant that she was able to use social networking sights more effectively to share her experiences of living with the condition.

How can AbilityNet help?

Call our free Helpline: 0800 269 545

  • Our free helpline is open Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm. Our friendly, knowledgeable staff will discuss any kind of computer problem and do their best to come up with a solution.

Arrange a home visit

  • Our network of AbilityNet ITCanHelp volunteers help disabled people deal with computer problems at home. They can come to your home, or help you over the phone. Click here to book a free home visit

Free Factsheets

My Computer My Way

Use our free website to find all the ways that you can adjust your computer, laptop, tablet and smartphone at

eNation: Supermarkets fail disabled people this Christmas

Shopping online for those Christmas dinner essentials is needlessly difficult for disabled people, concludes a new 'State of the enation' report by AbilityNet. Testers with a range of conditions from blindness and low vision to learning difficulties, shopped for a turkey, a Christmas pudding and a dozen crackers at the five top online food retailers using both website and mobile apps (where available).

state of the eNation reportsOf the five websites sampled – Sainsburys, Morrisons, Asda, Tesco and Ocado – only one met the base-level of access requirements needed for stress-free shopping, with disabled users on some sites taking over an hour to make their purchases and on others unable to complete the checkout process altogether. Apps fared a little better, with two achieving minimum requirements - which still means that much frustration will be experienced by many users on their mobile devices this Christmas.

Sites and apps were tested with the most commonly encountered access technologies (such as magnification software and screen readers) and whether or not they could be accessed using the keyboard instead of the mouse. Of the top five supermarket sites, only Tesco’s met the needs of visitors with a visual impairment, physical difficulties or dyslexia, and attained three stars on the five star scale. Ocado performed best out of all the mobile apps tested, achieving a four star ranking with Tesco’s app a close second with another three star rating.

Explains Robin Christopherson, AbilityNet’s Head of Digital Inclusion:

“The websites and mobile apps were a challenge to our testers. Three stars suggests that the site or app satisfies many of the technical and legal requirements (Equality Act 2010) that enable disabled visitors to undertake the tasks set, albeit with some difficulties along the way.

“A score of less than three stars means that many customers will fail to fill their basket let alone successfully complete the purchase and confirm a time for delivery. That only one website met this criteria promises little online festive cheer for our testers this Christmas.

“Latest figures show that a tipping point has been reached in online retail with all growth going forward resulting from sales via mobile devices (smartphones and tablets). This trend makes the accessibility of apps to disabled users a strategically even more important factor looking ahead.”

Morrisons doesn't offer online shoppingPerhaps most disappointing however was the fact that Morrisons, unlike its rivals, does not sell online at all – a huge drawback for disabled customers for whom home delivery or at least an in-store collection service is of enormous benefit. Robin adds: “Retailers who ignore the needs of disabled people risk missing out on a market which represents a spending power of some £120 billion every year (the so called ‘purple pound’).

“The Law is clear on this issue. It is just as illegal to bar disabled visitors from accessing your goods and services online as it would be to keep them out of your building in the ‘real world. Whilst no company would do this knowingly, as this report shows there are plenty of high profile companies that are contravening legal requirements by not considering their disabled customers.”

Download and read the eNation report in full now

Comments from disabled people conducting the tests include:

Tesco website

"I couldn't see the 'Skip to content' link on the Tesco site and for the tabbing you have to have good eyesight to spot, some are just a slight colour change but at least it is some indication which is more than most!"

Blind screen reader user

Tesco App

"I had trouble finding them. I didn’t realise that the crackers would be under the category 'Groceries' but overall very fast and efficient and precise."

Magnification user

Sainsbury’s website

“This site was difficult to use with misleading buttons such as 'Disabled save trolley', 'Disabled empty trolley' all of which are in fact active. There were also some unlabelled images such as 'icons/grid_British-Flag_v1_m56577569834232415'. Despite these difficulties I was able to complete the tasks with some effort.”

Blind screen reader user

Sainsbury’s app

“I found this app completely unusable as the mobile version of the site it accesses is full of incomprehensible links such as 'Deeplink.js' and you are unable to do anything.”

Blind screen reader user

Asda website

"Did not complete checkout process as found too time-consuming and frustrating. Also there is no accessibility page."

Blind screen reader user

Asda App

“Really confusing. I wasn't able to view the contents of my trolley and couldn't choose a timeslot for delivery (all grid cell items appear blank) and I gave up. Aaaagh!”

Blind screen reader user

Morrisons website

"What a very inaccessible site - I couldn't find anything I was looking for"

Magnification user

“I found it frustrating not being able to easily search for information on items. Get a search engine."

Dyslexic shopper

Ocado website

"When I was looking for the Christmas pudding and I clicked onto the heading browse shop that's when the problem occurred that if I moved my mouse off the icon the information would disappear and I would have to start the whole process again. I found this irritating."

Magnification user

"I added my items to the trolley and then had to register and afterwards my trolley was empty and it was a bit annoying that after registering I had to do it all over again."

Dyslexic shopper

Download and read the eNation report in full now

Disability statistics

In the UK an estimated 2 million people have a vision impairment, some 1.5 million have cognitive difficulties and a further 3.4 million have a disability which prevents them using the standard keyboard, screen and mouse set-up with ease. In addition, an estimated 6 million are dyslexic and many millions experience literacy difficulties, not to mention the increasing number of elderly ‘silver surfers’ with failing eyesight or arthritis.

About State of the eNation reports

AbilityNet is at the forefront of a number of initiatives both at home and abroad to improve website accessibility for disabled people and provide both private and public sector organisations with the expertise they need to ensure that their websites, apps and other digital content are meeting guideline levels of compliance (such as those recommended by the W3C/WAI). For more information on website accessibility, usability and design, contact AbilityNet on 0800 269545.

Download and read the eNation report in full now

Issued by the AbilityNet Press Office - for press contacts please call 01926 429595

Speech Recognition for Vikings

The three main areas where language and techno-linguists get excited are broadly; talking to your computer, your computer understanding what you said, and your computer speaking back to you in as human-sounding a way as possible. Robin Christopherson, AbilityNet's Head of Digital Inclusion reports on the latest developments in all three areas, all of which could have a profound impact on the lives of disabled people.

Robin Christopherson is AbilityNet's Head of Digital InclusionI’ve just been to Oslo to speak on language technology. The event was hosted at the fantastic National Library in Oslo where the walls are floor to ceiling cases of old leatherbound goldleaf-embossed books behind glass. The conference, however, was all high-tech –more specifically about language and how it is used in today’s technology. The three main areas where language and techno-linguists  get excited are broadly;

  • talking to your computer (for inputting text or to issue commands),
  • your computer understanding you with as much intelligence as code can currently muster, and
  • your computer speaking back to you in as human-sounding a way as possible.

Let’s deal briefly with each in turn as each is interesting in its own way and flying ahead as fast as a parrot persistnetly seeking Scandinavian solace.

Speech recognition

Speaking to your computer (speech or voice recognition) has been around for well over two decades and improving slowly with each new iteration. However in recent years processor power has enabled some very serious number-crunching to be done quickly enough to provide extremely accurate recognition without tedious delays. Today’s speech recognition software uses extensive statistical analysis of both what you are saying (including the words surrounding each word in context) and what you have said in the past (by analysing previous documents to provide the probability of your saying particular words again and in a given context).

This can lead to 98 or 99% accuracy. Unless you live in Norway.

There must be something in the water in Norway that affects the vocal chords, or perhaps it’s the Viking genes, that means that they are not able to benefit from such advancements in speech recognition.

Or it could just be that Dragon Naturally Speaking isn’t available in Norwegian!

It is of course for the latter reason and it’s easy for us English-speakers to assume that all the technologies we take for granted are available to everyone. Norway has a population of just over five million, the chap from Nuance attending the conference was chagrined to point out, and this just doesn’t make creating a Norwegian recognition engine an economically viable proposition. The Norwegian government are trying to muster two million pounds of funding to make it viable but in the meantime the fjords will be free from any Dragon-related activity for the time being (which is probably good news for the parrots).

Why can't apps fill the gap?

There are a number of apps (SayHi is an excellent example that I demonstrated as part of my presentation) that allow you to speak in one language and have it translated into another – including Norwegian. You can speak in Norwegian too and have it speak back the translation in English. The accuracy of these apps is only around 80-90% which isn’t sufficient for use in a professional environment where productivity is important and mistakes can be costly.

However, as these apps don’t actually process the phrases on the device itself but rather send a compressed recording of your words to be crunched on a central server somewhere, this means that we aren’t limited by the power of the device (only the speed of the connection) so the lack of accuracy is made up for in large part by the sheer numbers who will be able to use smartphones or tablets that aren’t themselves powerful enough to do the statistical gymnastics but who will nevertheless be able to access these inexpensive and still very useful apps given a half-decent mobile connection.

Moreover it is my hope that, as these massive servers receive inputs from thousands or tens of thousands of users, the statistical algorithms can get to work and begin to rapidly close this gap in recognition accuracy and what Nuance needs to do manually to collate data on how and what Norwegians say to their devices will happen automatically due to the sheer number of users alone.

So best of luck to Norway (and the hundreds of other countries still pining for pro recognition tools) but the good news is that speech recognition, as a method of interacting with your computer, is well and truly here to stay and advancing apace. And if you live in a Dragon-free country Hopefully it will come to a device near you soon.

Understanding natural language

This is the area where things are possibly moving most rapidly. The ability for devices (well, more accurately the software on those devices) to be able to interpret what you say and act upon it is helping us more and more each month.

For some this is a convenience (being able to issue a command to read out recent emails, dictate a text and who it should be sent to, or set a reminder about buying more post-it notes when you arrive at work – all while you’re driving on your daily commute is nice and handy), but for others who are permanently unable to use their hands (or eyes) such an ability could mean the difference between being digitally included or being left out in the cold. If you’re interested in reading more about virtual assistants and how their artificial intelligence is aiding everyone regardless of ability check out my Guardian article about how AI is helping the disabled or a related rambling on our own blog. Once again, however, we must spare a thought for our Norwegian cousins. Siri is still not available in Norway and, understandably, has left them feeling as sick as a parrot.

Speech output

The last area – speech output – is one of particular interest to me as a blind person. Synthetic speech needs to be clear so I can work fast and be confident in what I’m hearing, but up till now it hasn’t been anything to write home about – more like a parrot’s parody of speech than a real person. But even in this area things are flying fjorward fast. My computer now <sounds like this>.

Would you also like to have Ava available on your every device? Well your wish may well be granted as Nuance has really come up trumps this time with their ‘Vocaliser Expressive’ range of voices and they’re popping up all over the place. Soon Siri will be sounding like this although, alas, this is one instance where we are currently bobbing in Norway’s boat. The US version of Siri already has the new expressive voice but UK’s Siri is still without. It was rumoured for iOS7 but as yet is US-only.

On the whole, though, things are all moving in the right direction and if Norway can deal with their delay in Dragon, then we can be patient and not pine for a sexier Siri.

So to sum up – speech is here to stay. It will soon be as natural to hold a conversation with your computer as it is to with your wife or children. Actually a good deal more productive than trying to talk with your kids when they have something electronic in their hands – which is something of an irony. Of all those set to benefit from language technology it is the disabled (either temporarily by environment or permanently by impairment) who are set to gain the most and who are, speaking personally for a moment, the most excited by it all. I had a great time in Norway and would thoroughly recommend you pay a visit, but it’s not the fjords I’m pining for as much as the future that is fast approaching.

AbilityNet Named in UK Digital Leaders Top Ten

AbilityNet's pioneering approach to using digital technology for the good of others has been recognised with a place in the Top Ten of the UK Digital Leaders Awards 2013 alongside the BBC, Google and Mozilla. The Awards were announced at the House of Lords on 11 November and recognise organisations and individuals that have shown outstanding leadership and innovation in harnessing the power of digital technology and the internet.

AbilityNet wins a Top Ten spot in the Digital Leaders Awards 2013Nominations for the Digital Leaders Awards were received from the public and then voted on by members of the Digital Leaders Network and their peers, who cast over 9,000 votes. An expert panel of judges then selected the top 10 leaders in each category. AbilityNet CEO Nigel Lewis is pictured accepting the Award from Lord Knight of Weymouth and Charles Mindenhall of Agilsys, who sponsored the Awards.

Nigel Lewis said:

"This is an amazing result for us - beaten to the top spot by the BBC in the not for profit category and then sixth in the overall rankings behind names like Google and Mozilla. It's incredible to be named alongside such an amazing range of third sector, government and business nominations and is testament to the amazing skills and commitment of all our staff, volunteers and trustees.

"We are a unique organisation, delivering charitable and commercial services that have a profound impact on the lives of disabled people at home, at work and in education. That takes in an incredibly diverse range of activity, from volunteers visiting disabled people who need help with their computers to our expert team of consultants who ensured the accessibility of the websites for the London 2012 Games.

"We already work with many of the other Digital Leaders and we this Award is a chance to celebrate everyone's hard work in using digital technology for the good of others.

Robin Knowles is founder of Digital Leaders Programme, which has organised the Digital Leaders Awards:

"The Digital Leaders Programme gathers influential leaders from the highest levels of Government as well as the private and not-for-profit sectors. We see this is a vital part of the UK’s future success as a world-leading digital nation we hope the Awards can help share knowledge and experience as well as celebrate success. ”

Top Ten UK Digital Leaders 2013

  1. Mike Bracken (Government Digital Service)
  2. BBC
  3. RT Hon Francis Maude MP
  4. Mozilla
  5. Google
  6. AbilityNet
  7. Cllr Laura Robertson-Collins (Liverpool City Council)
  8. Ian Watt (Aberdeen City Council
  9. Go ON-UK
  10. Dave Carter (Manchester Digital Development Agency)

Read more about the awards on the Digital Leaders website.

Computer Tips for People with Cerebral Palsy

We're back with our monthly blog. This time we're looking at what adaptive technology would be helpful for people with Cerebral Palsy.

What is Cerebral Palsy (CP)

Cerebral Palsy is an umbrella term for a range of conditions which can cause difficulty with muscle control and movement. Additionally people with the condition may have difficulties with communication and they may have learning difficulties too. 

How many people in the UK have the condition?

According to SCOPE ( In the UK, cerebral palsy affects about 1 in every 400 children.

Athletes such as Josef Craig (Swimmer) and Sophie Christiansen (Equestrian) who have CP, both won Gold Medals at the London 2012 Paralympics. 
You may also have come accross Comedian and Actress Francesca Martinez on the telly.

Top tips for easier computing

Depending on what your needs are, you might want to change some of the Accessibility settings to slow down the mouse speed, or changing the way that the keyboard reacts when you hit a key. You can even change the double click speed of the mouse to make it easier for you to use it. Different keyboards and pointing devices might be really helpful depending on your level of movement.

Case study

Paul called us to see if we could help him. He has CP and finds using a standard keyboard and mouse really difficult. We talked him through the different options and suggested that he trial a larger keyboard and a trackerball to see if either of these proved useful. We also advised him that there are settings which he can change within the Control Panel which means that mouse and keyboard use will become easier for him.

How can we help?

There are a few ways that we can help:

  • 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.
  • 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 well find the factsheet on Vision Impairment and Computing useful (
  • My Computer My Way. A list of free hints and tips that you can use to make your time on the computer that bit easier.

How Stephen Hawking communicates

Prof. Stephen Hawking is one of the most recognisable people on the planet, partly because of his synthesised speech. As well as featuring in the Opening Ceremony at the London Olympics he's so famous that he's played himself in The Simpsons four times! But what is the technology behind that voice? AbilityNet's Head of Digital Inclusion Robin Christopherson looks at how Professor Hawking controls his computer, as well as some of the advances that are on the horizon which may help him continue to push the boundaries of scientific thinking.

Despite his global fame many people do not realise that Prof. Hawking is the UK’s longest lived individual with motor neurone disease (MND) and continues to amaze the medical profession with his longevity as much as he does the scientific world with his contributions to cosmology and theoretical physics. His ability to control his communication device, however, has deteriorated over the years - but fear not, technology will always keep pace with his needs.

This video of Prof. Hawking explaining how his technology works and how he quickly builds up phrases to be spoken for everyday conversation, delivering lectures or writing papers.

More recently you may have seen news about how he has had to recently update his method of interacting with his technology. The ‘Hawking talking with his blinks’ article explains how he has lost his ability to control his tech using a switch he presses with a finger and so some adapted glasses include an infra-red sensor that is triggered when he blinks. The definite blink (rather than the sub-conscious ones we all do many times a minute) causes the infra-red beam to be broken long enough to register a switch-press and he’s back in business.

Wearable tech is everywhere these days and, whilst Prof. Hawking uses it for a very special and important purpose, these additional sensors will undoubtedly find their way into more mainstream wearable devices such as Google Glass. Already the numerous methods of interacting with your phone or wearable tech like Glass are providing convenience for users (issue a voice command if your hands are busy, or have your texts spoken out to you as you drive) and those same options are opening doors for disabled users who are permanently unable to touch or see the screen.

Adding sensors

But what if, like Prof. Hawking, you can't use your voice? Based on his current tech solution it's easy to see how adding further sensors such as infra-red switches to take a photo or flick through menus without touching or talking to the device may well be coming to a gadget near you soon. And we’re already seeing software that tracks eye movement (pausing video playback when you look away from the screen) and gesture control to be able to wave at your TV or tablet to change the channel or flip a page.

Meanwhile Prof. Stephen Hawking is helping developers with a project that should soon be accessing our thoughts directly. The iBrain interface is one of several commercial projects that promise to cut out the need for any external user interaction whatsoever. Obviously this will have a very significant impact on people with extreme disabilities but, like with all these advancements, one could argue that they’re being embraced by mainstream manufacturers and accelerated as a result.

Will they reach the escape velocity required by a particle orbiting a black hole? Only the Prof knows the answer to that one but, thanks to advances such as these, he’ll never be without a voice to tell us.