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.

Three things to include in your accessibility help page

AbilityNet recommends that every site should have an Accessibility help page. Whether you have a fully accessible site or not they provide a useful stepping stone on a user journey, they offer practical help to your customers and show them that you have thought about their needs. 

As a minimum we recommend that they include:

  • a statement about the accessibility of the site,
  • an explanation of any special accessibility features and links to tools such as My Computer My Way
  • contact details for feedback.

Why do you need an accessibility help page?

Setting expectations

Of course we want every site on the web to be accessible but you can have an accessibility page even if your site isn't accessible. It's not a legal obligation - more of a way to deliver a better customer experience. Having an accessibility help page doesn't make a site compliant or accessible, but a good accessibility help page can make your site more usable and could encourage people to choose you instead of the competition. 

An accessibility page gives you a chance to warn people if you know there are parts of the site with accessibility issues or which have been difficult to adapt. It also gives you chance to offer alternatives, such as a customer support telephone number.

Many people will be booking cruise holidays onlineHelp as much as you can

Imagine a relatively wealthy, recently retired couple planning their first luxury cruise. They don't consider themselves disabled, but when thinking about a cruise they have all sorts of questions about the facilities and adaptations which may help make the experience more comfortable.

Like many older people they are comfortable using a tablet computer to browse websites but often have a problem with small text, scrolling images and forms that are hard to use. 

Of course it also makes sense for the site to be accessible. The law says it should comply with the WCAG 2.0 guidelines but in a competitive market it needs to be designed and tested with the needs of these customers in mind. Some of the target market will be using assistive technology, whether that is voice over to compensate for a visual impairment or an alternative mouse due to arthritis.

Just as the people joining the cruise will remember the help they get from attentive staff, their first experience of the company may well be a website which also caters for their needs and makes them feel welcome. It makes sense for the cruise companies to think about accessibility and making sure that people have the help they need to use their site - or risk seeing them switch to a competitor. 

What to include in your accessibility help page

1. Compliance statement

Many sites use the accessibility help page to state that they comply with WCAG 2.0, which is the internationally-accepted minimum standard for web site accessibility. UK law requires AA compliance, so the statement is seen as fulfilling a legal obligation. Even if the site is fully accessible this is helpful, as it reassures the site user that common features should be available to all, but there is more to it than that.

Of course it is best to be working towards compliance, but where you know something on your site isn't fully accessible it is an opportunity to provide alternatives. Imagine how frustrating it is to be trying to use a service which the site owner knows cannot work for you - where it may well be better to offer customer support by phone.

Not sure how compliant your site is? 

Speak to your web team, or ask an external expert like AbilityNet to conduct a test and provide some suggested wording. Or you can conduct simple single page tests using something like WAVE from WebAim at - you just enter a webpage address and discover how many accessibiliy issues it contains.

Some of them will be easily solved, like adding Alt Tags to images, whilst others may be more difficult to unpick, but at least you know where you stand and have an idea of the barriers your customers face.

2. Help with accessibility features

My Computer My WayThink about the customers that may need your help to complete their user journeys. Many will be using a smartphone or tablet instead of standard browser and desktop PC and most will not know about the ways in which they can adjust their device to suit their needs.

Somewhere in the settings they may well be able to increase text size, add voice output or increase colour contrast - that may make the difference between sticking to your site or going elsewhere.

That's why we recommend a link to My Computer My Way, a free tool that explains all the accessibility features built into common desktop computers, laptops, tablets and smartphones. You can link to it for free, but if you don't want to people to leave your site it's also possible to embed that information within your site, branding it to your look and feel - there's more details about this elswehere on our site

You may also have specific tools that help people use your site.

For example AbilityNet uses BrowseAloud, which reads content to people who are dyslexic or have others reasons for needing help with reading content. We link to the software in various places on our site and we include details in our accessibility help page.

3. Feedback mechanism

A final part of the jigsaw is to encourage feedback from customers. Make it easy to get in touch so that people choose you instead of your competitors - and listen to what they have to say about their experience.

Of course this is good practise for many other reasons but in terms of accessibility it encourages people to highlight issues they have using your service.

You can also tell people about other ways of using your service, such as email or phone, or even face-to-face alternatives.

Where to put your accessibility help page link

Make it easy to find. A common place to put a link is in the bottom menu, in a small font size alongside with various corporate information. Although convention means many people will look there it is better if you can place it at the top of the page in a more prominent position, or both.

To help people using screen readers it could be one of the first links, so that they don't have to tab through endless content to find it, or put a link next to any extras you offer such as style switchers.

What next?

  • Review your accessibility help page
    Take a look at your current accessibility page and see how helpful it is. It may contain a simple statement about compliance, but does it help some one use your service? Does it encourage them to choose you instead of a competitor?
  • Update your help page
    It may take some time to sort out the compliance of your site but it should be easy to put in a few links, such as My Computer My Way. And it won't take long to add a feedback method, whether that is an email address, a telephone number or a new form.
  • Video of the webinar is available on VimeoWatch the video
    This article is based on a webinar run by AbilityNet in September 2013. Watch the video of this webinar on Vimeo, although at the time of writing it had not been captioned. 
  • You can also view the slides from the webinar on Slideshare.

Mark Walker, AbilityNet

And the chosen charity is... AbilityNet!

When Technica Solutions, a managed IT support company asked for recommendations on LinkedIn for a charity that uses technology to benefit others, the overwhelming response was ‘AbilityNet’. That introduction led to a new relationship that means AbilityNet is now the beneficiary of a dynamic company that is determined to give something back to the community.

Explains Technica Solutions’ partner, Craig Fisher: “Our desire to launch ‘Technica in the Community’ and support AbilityNet is rooted in our will to inspire others and raise awareness, which is part of the ethos of how we operate."

Vanessa Fisher of Technica Solutions was recommended to speak to AbilityNet after enquiries on LinkedInDetermined to experience AbilityNet’s work first hand and gain a thorough understanding of our services, the Technica team spent a day finding out about the problems that face disabled and elderly people online and how their needs are often overlooked when designing apps, ticketing or payment systems for everyday transactions.

Says Business Development Manager, Vanessa Fisher: “I learnt how AbilityNet helps companies improve their websites, databases and other IT systems and was particularly fascinated to hear about the accessibility testing services that AbilityNet provided to the London 2012 Games.” Technica was also thrilled to discover that AbilityNet’s volunteer-led, IT Can Help service providing free advice to disabled people in their homes, is particularly active in their home county of Hertfordshire – a facility which Vanessa and her colleagues are keen to promote to their network.

Says AbilityNet CEO, Nigel Lewis: “We are absolutely delighted that Technica has selected AbilityNet as their charity partner and we look forward to their support and working with them to help the most in need to engage and benefit from technology within our digital society."

For each client received by recommendation, Technica Solutions will be making a direct donation to AbilityNet.

Find out more about Technica at

Fleksy - Phone Texting for Visually Impaired made easy:

Smartphones open up a whole new world to people with visual impairments. In this blog AbilityNet's Head of Fundraising Rory Field talks about his experience with Fleksy, an app designed to make texting easier.

Hi there,

Photo of Rory holding up his iphone, showing the fleksy keyboard in actionThere are a few of us that post on our Facebook page, so I should let you know that I am partially sighted, registered blind.  Yes, it may be a little odd to start an article like that, but the context will soon be clear.  I’m sure everyone out there with visual impairments will know what I mean when I talk about typing on our phones.  Smart phones really open a whole new world to us and there are different ways for us to input information.  If you are like me, you use a combination of those methods.  I have a Bluetooth keyboard that works fantastically well and is the main way of inputting information for me.  It is however, not always appropriate – for example when walking or sitting for a short time, like when travelling and having to make changes every couple of minutes.  So, I also combined this with voice input, either Siri or dictation.

Now at this point, I should probably say that I do have an iPhone and find it the most accessible phone for me.  Having said that, there are many great phones out there on different operating systems.

Anyway, back to my blurb.  Sometimes voice input is not appropriate either, such as in noisy environments.  In these instances, I revert back to the onscreen keyboard, where I have my setting on touch type, which is a setting that allows you to drag and lift your finger rather than having to find and then double tap on the correct letter (I use voice over, to know what is on the screen).  That is until yesterday!

I came across this fantastic free app called Fleksy.  Again, if you, like me, know the onscreen keyboard pretty well, you know the approximate location of the letters, but don’t always put your finger on the correct key, perhaps the one next to or below it etc.  Fleksy is intuitive based on the location of the keys on the keyboard.  So, you type in the approximate locations of the letters and most often Fleksy is able to calculate the correct word.  Here is another kicker for voice over users – it is all based on single taps!  So if you for example want to type “Hi”, just tap twice; once where you think the ‘h’ is and once where you think the ‘I’ is.  To make a space, simply swipe (with one finger!) to the right and the voice over will tell you what word has been put in.  Even if you mistakenly hit ‘G’ and ‘I’, the word chosen is most likely to be ‘Hi’.  If it is not correct, you can swipe down and a number of the next most likely options will appear.  If in the unlikely event none of the answers are correct, you can swipe left and the word will be deleted and you can retype that word.  I played around with it for a couple of hours last night, and in that time I had one word that I needed to delete and go back on.   It really made it so much faster, quite unbelievable.  You really should try it to believe it.

Have a look at Fleksy's Video:

You can very easily do punctuation, simply by swiping right for a second time.  The default punctuation is a full stop, but if you swipe down, the other options are there.  Fleksy checks out the names that you have in your contacts, so if you type names, it can match likelihoods to ones that you have in your contacts.  You can switch to a number keypad by touching in the bottom left corner and it interacts very well with other functions on your phone.  Whilst I was playing around with it, it interacted very well with my voice over.  In addition to this, a two fingered swipe up will bring up the menu, where amongst other things you will find options for Facebook, Twitter, email etc.  So, open the app, type your text, swipe up with two fingers and decide what you want to do with the text!

There is more you can do with Fleksy; this is just what comes to mind from my little play around with it last night.  There is also a very handy little summary guide in about eight lines when you open Fleksy, so no need to be apprehensive.  As I said near the beginning, this app is free.  I think it is fantastic for visually impaired people, and I am sure that other people who don’t always hit the right letter when typing on that little onscreen keyboard will also benefit from it.  The app is currently available for iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad; watch this space as I stole the word currently from elsewhere, so it may be available on other platforms soon.

Age-related Macular Degeneration and computing

This blog post is part of a series that answers on some of the most common requests on our free advice and information helpline. This one looks at how technology can help people with Age Related Macular Degeneration (AMD).

What is Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD)?

photo of an eyeAMD is a sight condition that is normally found in people who are over 50.  People with the condition lose their central vision over time.  The vision loss may make it harder for people to recognise faces, drive and read print. It is worth noting though that people with the condition still have peripheral vision. There are two types of AMD, wet and dry.  Famous people with the condition include writer Stephen King.

How many people in the UK have the condition?

According to the Macular Society ( at the moment there are around 500,000 people in the UK with this condition.

Top tips for easier computing

Using the accessibility options (or universal access) you can make the text bigger and you can also change the colour of it so you can view it more easily. Using the basic magnification software on the computer may also be beneficial. Positioning the computer, especially the monitor may also be really useful too. If your sight gets to the point where reading text is impossible you can consider using text to speech, where the computer can read text out to you in a synthesized voice.

Screen magnification software

Case study

Enid called us. She explained that her condition was meaning that she had a lot of dazzle from the screen. She used to use her computer a lot for online shopping as she also has some mobility problems and finds it difficult to get out.

We explained that she could customise the accessibility options within her computer to make the screen easier to read and so she could continue ordering her shopping online. We even suggested that a volunteer might be able to come out and help

How can we help?

There are a few ways that we can help:

  • Call our free Helpline. We’re open Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm on 0800 269 545. 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. We have a network of freindly 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.

Mariella Frostrup announces winners of Technology4Good Awards 2013

Mariella FrsotrupThe winners of this year’s Technology4Good Awards were announced by broadcaster Mariella Frostrup at a glittering Awards Ceremony hosted by BT on 4 July. Winners included Barclays Bank for installing accessible ATMs, Code Club for teaching primary school children the forgotten art of computer programming and The Big Give, a website that helped charities raise over £10m last Christmas. This year's Ceremony also included a Special Award for Dame Stephanie Shirley who shared her amazing life story as an IT pioneer and one of the UK's most generous philanthropists.

The Technology4Good Awards are organised by Abilitynet and BT and supported by a host of business and not for profit partners. This year's winners are:

Barclays Bank
Accessibility Award 2013 sponsored by AbilityNet and BATA
Barclays has installed over 3,500 accessible ATMs and introduced Hi Vis Debit Cards

BT Get IT Together Award 2013 sponsored by BT
Tackling digital exclusion by working with communities, individuals and businesses in South West England for over 20 years

Self Help Services
Community Impact Award 2013 sponsored by Camelot and UK online centres
Self-help group in Manchester using innovative IT solutions to help people with mental health issues

The Big Give
Digital Giving Award 2013 sponsored by NFP Tweetup
Not-for-profit platform for charities to fundraise online in innovative ways and helps donors to give intelligently

Code Club
Digital Skills Award 2013 sponsored by Barclaycard
After-school clubs for 9-11 years with volunteers teaching kids the forgotten art of computer programming

The Prospects Trust at Snakehall Farm
Grow Your Charity Online Award 2013 sponsored by Media Trust and Microsoft
A social enterprise farm that has used Facebook to reach new people and raise funds

David Bennoson
IT Volunteer of the Year Award 2013 sponsored by IT4Communities and Microlink
Has been a tech volunteer at RNIB for over 40 years

Norman Hunter
Local Digital Champions Awards 2013 sponsored by Go ON UK
An inspirational tutor helping people from disadvantaged parts of Merseyside get online for the first time

My Home Helper
T4G People’s Award 2013 sponsored by Brandwatch
An information system to help dementia sufferers stay healthy and keep in touch with family and friends

Insight/Mexborough School
T4G Youth Award 2013 sponsored by BT, Amey, Fujitsu and Installation Technology
The team is creating an app to help visually impaired people navigate using their smartphone

Congratulations to all the winners and finalists - you can photos more details about the winners at the Technology4Good Awards website.

Bob Twitchin Chair of AbilityNet ITCanHelp Retires

Abilitynet's ITCanHelp service provides IT support to disabled people in their homes and Bob Twitchen has been a central figure in its development for many years. It became part of AbilityNet last year but Bob and his colleagues have spent almost 20 years setting up and running this service completely voluntarily. Bob has now resigned as Chair of ITCanHelp, due to ill health, and asked that we publish this extract is from his resignation letter:

"For some time my own health and that of my wife has been deteriorating and, with great regret, I have decided that the time has come for me to step down from the Chair of the Steering Group and from taking an active part in the work of ITCanHelp.

It has been a great pleasure and privilege to have worked with so many committed and enthusiastic volunteers in all roles throughout ITCanHelp since the mid 1990s.  All of us who knew Ken Stoner were inspired by his vision, fuelled by his own experience, of the isolating effects of disability and the transforming effect that being able to use computers could have for severely disabled people. Ken was not just inspired, he also worked very hard at the detailed organisation of ITCanHelp and the processes and procedures to support and organise the work of enthusiastic volunteers. Over the years so many others have given and continue to give great dedication and commitment to the work.

Although ITCanHelp has been unusual in the amount of responsibility taken by volunteers, we have had great support from BCS and more recently from AbilityNet and am grateful to all those who have supported our work. Continued participation in planning and operations by volunteers with experience of organising and providing support to clients is vital for the future success of ITCanHelp.

To try to thank everyone by name now would be impossible, but I do want to mention particularly the members of the Management/Steering Group in the last three years, who have worked together with people in BCS and AbilityNet to set up ITCanHelp as a key part of AbilityNet Volunteering. Josie and Anne have been towers of strength, and it has been good to see relationships developing with other people in AbilityNet, for example on marketing, training, press office support and fundraising.

2014 will be the twentieth anniversary of the creation of ITCanHelp as a pilot project in three English Counties, and I do hope it may be possible to celebrate this milestone, perhaps with some event to commemorate the work done over the years and the effect this has had on the lives of our clients.

It is good to see that the work is continuing to grow and develop as ICT and the on-line world become ever more essential in people’s lives. I look forward to keeping in touch and hearing of continued success in the future."

With thanks and best wishes to everyone
Bob Twitchin BSc FBCS CITP

Vote Now in Technology4Good Awards 2013

Mariella Frostrop will announce the winners at this year's Technology4Good Awards Ceremony in early July. Twenty-four finalists have been chosen by a panel of experts who will now decide who wins the eight Awards, but you can have a say now by voting in the T4G People's Award. You can vote on the Technology4Good website, or register your vote on Twitter!

The Technology4Good Awards are organised by Abilitynet and BT and celebrate the people and organisations that use computers and the internet to make the world a better place. They are supported by a range of businesses and not for profit partners, who use their expertise to decide the winners.  Previous winners include a group of volunteers who help stroke victims relearn computer skills, Lloyds Banking Group for their commitment to meeting the needs of disabled employees and a charity that provides games machines to children in hospices.

This year's entries range from Barclays Bank, who have introduced accessible ATMS across the UK, to an IT volunteer who helps a riding school for disabled children in Barnsley. It's a tough choice to know who to vote for but we've had over 1000 votes so far, so if you would like to get involved vote now at – entries close at midnight on 30 June.

A huge thank you to all of our partners and sponsors for supporting both Technology4Good and Technology4Good Youth Awards including Amey, BT, Barclaycard, BATA, Brandwatch, Camelot, Go On UK, IT4Communities, Media Trust, Microlink, Microsoft, Pleece&Co, Plug-In Media, PWC and UK Online Centres.

Good luck to all finalists and we look forward to announcing all winners on July 4th.

Read the full details on AbilityNet’s Technology4Good Awards

Accessibility Goes Mobile: Free webinar

The whole world is going mobile, but what does it mean for accessibility? The latest of AbilityNet's free accessibility webinars will review some of the opportunities and potential problems that mobile and tablet devices provide when thinking about how to reach every customer on every platform. It's free of charge at 1pm BST on Wednesday 26 June.

Register now on the gotomeeting website - a video copy of the webinar will be available after the event.