Talk, and they will listen....

I remember reading a book in about 1985, which was a work of fantasy.  It was trying to predict how we were going to live in the middle of the next century.  I don’t remember all of this but it had fanciful pictures of colonies on other planets or hover cars.  Actually I do remember watching "Knight Rider" when David Hasselhoff spoke to his car and the car spoke back. Perhaps that was fiction too?

If you had told me in 1985 that by the year 2015 you could control your computer just by using your voice I would have looked at you in a very strange way. But in 2015 it’s no fantasy.      

I can ask my smartphone to search the web by voice. ..amongst other things. I can ask my phone by voice to find information on the Houses of Parliament.  My device will even display the Houses of Parliment on a map for me.

But strangely if I want to use Google's travel directions I have to use my it's not perfect by any means. I can also ask my phone what the weather is like in Birmingham.  I can ask my phone to send a text message to my Dad………who by the way has a really old phone that just makes calls.

The only strange thing is that I need to be able to swipe my phone and press lightly on the touch screen to enable voice control, so it’s not that good for people with hand/arm difficulties where fine motor control might be an issue.  It is good though for people who have dyslexia or other cognitive impairments (and yes you can get the phone to speak out to you and tell you what is on the screen!)

I have an Android phone but if you have an iPhone you can use your voice to find information via the built in Siri app.  The Android app is called Evi. Now it isn’t perfect. I have a speech impediment and sometimes it gets a bit confused but on the whole it works really well and is a great resource.

So we’ve started off by discussing using voice control to search the web. Of course we get lots of calls from clients who want to use voice to produce documents.  Providing you put the effort in you will get good functionality in. There aren’t any shortcuts but the time spent is well worth it.  
You can dictate documents, then you can change the typeface which they are written in and then finally you can print them off.   This is very useful for people with all sorts of disabilities and actually the wider population.

Some people say they that they speak more confidently then they type.  If you have a digital Dictaphone you can be away from your desk , perhaps in a lecture or on a site visit and then record your notes and have them transposed into your document when you come back to your desk. This saves you time and energy too.

As you'll be aware there are lots of regional accents within the UK. Voice recognition is fairly good at being able to recognise them now but as always it is a work in progress! We'd always make the point that in most cases voice recognition can be used within an solution that also might include alternative keyboards and input devices.

Voice recognition is probably the piece of technology that is most often asked about by clients. 

Here are three short case studies of people that we've spoken to recently.  

Recently a Mr H. called us and wanted to know if he could use voice recognition as he had Parkinsons and found the keyboard problematic.  His voice seemed to be clear when I spoke to him so we're going to get one of our volunteers out to him and take him through the enrolment process.  The enrolment entails reading some text for about 5 minutes so the system can recognise your voice fairly well.  If he masters this he should be able to control his computer very effectively.

A Mr K. rang us to see if we could help his daughter who was struggling to get notes down as she is dyslexic. She doesn't work at the moment and she's not in full time education.  We suggested using voice recognition (which is built into all new Windows computers)  and we also told him that there were some ways of helping his daughter to get enrolled on the system. For example actually telling his daughter what to say during the enrollment process by whispering text to her. We also explained how they could use a mobile phone to act as a note taker and a diary.

Robert called us yesterday. He's got Motor Neurone Disease (MND) and whilst his speech is good at the moment, he is losing muscle tone and finds using a keyboard very tiring.  We suggested using voice recognition with a goose neck microphone. Whilst most people use a head microphone, for people with poor hand and arm movement it can be tiring to put on and take off where as a goose neck microphone can just be placed on a desk.  Voice recognition can also be used effectively by people who have Repetitive Stress Injury (RSI).

Oh and as we're talking about microphones it is always more effective to have a USB microphone rather then a line in microphone. It will save you a lot of time and effort.

As you can see all three of these clients had different issues but voice recognition was the technology that could help them become more independent when using the computer.

How can we help?

Find out more about controlling your computer with your voice in our free on demand webinar

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

  • Call our free Helpline 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. We’re open Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm.
  • 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 about voice recognition and keyboard alternatives useful.
  • My Computer My Way. A free interactive guide to all the accessibility features built into current desktops, laptops, tables and smartphones.

Goodbye Sir Terry Pratchett

Everyone at AbilityNet is sad to hear of the death of Sir Terry Pratchett, AbilityNet Patron and author of over 70 books, most of them in the Discworld series. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2007 and a new career started as a spokesman for people with the condition, appearing on many different TV programmes and in the newspapers to raise awareness of the condition.

Sir Terry Pratchett was a Patron of AbilityNet for many yearsBut Sir Terry was not only a spokesman for people with Alzheimer's, he was a writer and always needed to write to occupy his mind. This is where adaptive technology came in. He used voice recognition to get all of his thoughts on paper. In his own words he was “astonished” by what voice recognition could do. “It has it’s funny little ways” he said, and Pratchett soon realised how he ought to speak to the system (which is something we heartily recommend).

In an interview with AbilityNet's Head of Digital Inclusion Robin Christopherson a few years ago Sir Terry said that even if his ability to type came back he’d still want to use voice recognition. He had high hopes for the future of adaptive technology, although he did wonder if we had unrealistic expectations of computers because of shows such as Star Trek.

He also felt that we still need to “join the dots” in terms of technology. He gave the example of being able to call people on his mobile but he was not being able to do this on his landline. Asked about Artificial Intelligence, Pratchett felt that it would be great if it could all happen, "but only if all the dots were joined”.

Speaking about his death AbilityNet’s CEO Nigel Lewis said:

“Everyone at AbilityNet is sorry to hear the sad news that AbilityNet Patron and amazing author Terry Pratchett has died and our thoughts are with Terry's family.  Terry helped the work of AbilityNet by raising awareness of the power of technology to change the lives of those with a disability or limiting health condition and we will always be grateful for his support.”

Website Security: Sorting the Humans From the Robots

Knowing your webforms are secure from the thousands of unwanted spambots trying to create fake accounts or inundate you with advertising for questionable medical supplements is something that gives most website owners peace of mind. Over the years different security and anti-spam systems have been developed to determine who is actually trying to send you a message, subscribe to your newsletter or buy one of your products.

One of the most commonly used (I deliberately refrain from saying popular) authentication systems is CAPTCHA (‘Completely Automated Process that can tell Computers and Humans Apart’) – users have to decode scrambled or distorted text to prove they are a human being rather than a malicious spam robot.

A Web Accessibility 'Catch-22'

example of a standard CATCHA test using distorted textWith their appearance CAPTCHAs presented many disabled users with a variety of different problems – but almost always intractable, meaning that they were unable to use the form or complete the process. This is because CAPTCHAs are an accessibility ‘Catch-22’ in which the various access technologies used by disabled people that require content to be machine-readable and then converted into their own preferred output format (such as text to speech) are needing to do exactly what CAPTCHAs are designed to thwart.

If the unlabelled image of the distorted code had a text label (as images should) then the robot would simply use that label, and yet without it blind users are stumped. If the text in the image could be recognised by text-recognition software then a blind user could use it but so could a robot. These distorted codes also present huge problems for users with low vision or dyslexia.

In many cases there is an option to have the text read aloud, but this garbled code (made difficult to hear so that voice-recognition software can’t recognise it) means that human ears can’t distinguish it either. As a blind person I have never successfully understood an audio CAPTCHA and it is blind users like me that they are there for. Of course you can reset the CAPTCHA if you can’t read or understand it, but what it is replaced with is equally as distorted or garbled so the user is no better off.

There are better alternatives that don’t catch the user in this accessibility armlock. Some CAPTCHAs use simple mathematical equations or logic questions to find out whether you’re a human or not. For example; ‘Which of the following is not an animal: Dog, Elephant, Hot, Mouse, Monkey’.

Whilst vastly preferable to the usual CAPTCHA because it is now machine-readable and, surprisingly, still too difficult to be understood by robots, this system is still not perfect and can present a barrier to access for some disabled people with very significant cognitive difficulties. There is, however, an argument that says that people with that level of cognitive difficulty may well not be completing webforms without assistance anyway and hence someone will be on hand to help.

"no CAPTCHA reCAPTCHA" has Google solved the problem?

At the end of last year Google launched a new alternative to the widely despised problem. Called “no CAPTCHA reCAPTCHA” it seems too simple to be true. In keeping with Google’s minimalist style and philosophy, they have reduced the problem of website security and spam attacks down to one simple question and tickbox; “are you a robot?”

Behind this simple question and stylish checkbox is a rather sophisticated bit of funtionality. Google’s own research identified that Artificial Intelligence technology was now smart enough to be 99.8% able to decode even the most distorted CAPTCHA texts, so they began to look at ways to improve the system.

Google’s developers created Advanced Risk Analysis functionality that looks at the behaviour of the user (humans and robots) before, during and after the CAPTCHA interaction, so that there is no longer the need to rely so much on the use of distorted text. This led on to the launch of the new ‘No CAPTCHA reCATCHA’ API.

Users have to simply check the box to say “I’m not a robot”. That’s it.

Just to err on the safe side and in case Artificial Intelligence in the form of a spambot can emulate human behaviour, there are additional security layers to the new API. For example, if the risk analysis algorythms can’t be certain whether a user is a robot or human then the good (or bad) old CAPTCHA image will appear.

We were sceptical as to whether the process would work for keyboard users (that’s blind users, those with motor difficulties that find mice difficult to use and also smart TV users whose remote control is in effect tabbing through the page) and to our surprise it did seem to. There is obviously some way that a human tabs through a web page that is distinguishable from a robot. It does not, however, work on mobiles where there is no behaviour to track on a page except the occasional tap on a form field or button.

Whether or not Google’s new tool can distinguish between a spam robot and a wide range of human beings using an array of assistive technologies remains to be seen. There are only a handful of websites actually using the new process and it will be interesting to watch how this new tool develops and whether or not it is finally the answer to the perennial conundrum that is CAPTCHA. 

Making the keyboard and mouse work for you!

This month we're going to look at some really basic but useful techniques to help you get the best from the keyboard and mouse at work. For devices that are so basic, you can actually make a lot of little changes to help you more effectively when you are at work. It doesn't matter if you have a Mac or a PC. They both share the same universal accessibility options.

Hitting two keys at once?

So for instance the use of filter keys and sticky keys can help you if you have conditions which mean you end up hitting two keys at once (or for the matter if you need to hold two keys down at once). if you are wondering where to find the settings they are in the control panel under Ease of Access!

The point to remember about what I've just described is that it just takes a few minutes to set-up and this is something that your IT department will be able to help with. Or following our simple instructions at My Computer My Way.

Something that doesn't need any time to set-up at all is the use of keyboard shortcuts. We all know the basic shortcuts...CTRL+P is print, CTRL+V is paste and CTRL+C is copy.

If you have an Apple computer this Macworld magazine article will help you out.

Using a keyboard as a mouse

Hang on though.....before we start talking about how to change the settings on the mouse it might be worth pointing out that you can use the keyboard as a mouse (and lots of people do). There's a really useful function called Mouse Keys. This basically means if you've got an issue where you find mouse movement difficult but the keyboard isn't an issue for you then you can convert the keyboard to control the mouse. Once again have a look at My Computer My Way website for further info. 

Actually while we're talking about the keyboard being a good way to use the computer we ought to point out how you can easily use the keyboard to navigate through a form. The information is available on My Computer My Way.

So onto the mouse. So if you have any number of disabilities you will find that the mouse seems to move around a little too quickly on the screen. Don't fret as you can slow it right down so that it is a bit more manageable.

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.

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 about voice recognition and keyboard alternatives useful.

My Computer My Way. A free interactive guide to all the accessibility features built into current desktops, laptops, tables and smartphones.

Barclays Mobile Banking App Accredited by AbilityNet

Barclays Mobile Banking App is the first app to receive AbilityNet accreditation, following testing at the end of 2014. AbilityNet's Accessibility consultants worked closely with the Barclays team from the early stages of the project and the app has a number of features which promote accessibility and a disability-friendly design.

Barclays BankElaine Draper, Head of Accessibility at Barclays says:

“The new accredited app brings us one step closer to becoming the most accessible bank. The app is now easier to use for all of our customers, especially those with disabilities. Digital innovation is central to our business and we want to build services that meet the needs of every customer.”

AbilityNet’s senior consultant Joe Chidzik has been leading this work and says that Barclays have put accessibility at the heart of their processes. He said:

“Barclays have made great progress with their latest mobile banking app, achieving a high standard of accessibility. Mobile banking is something everyone finds convenient and it's important that anyone that wants to use the app can. Barclays are the first high street bank to get AbilityNet’s accreditation, which involves testing with disabled users to highlight 'real-world' issues.”

Barclays Banking App The Mobile Banking app has been adapted to include an ‘accessibility’ section, where users can select information about the following:

  • Sight- advice includes braille, large print, audio correspondence, large print cheque books and talking cash machines for customers;
  • Hearing / speech- includes guidance on British Sign Language, Hearing Induction Loops and text relay;
  • Mobility / dexterity- guidance includes chip and sign, what to do around differing signatures and home visits;
  • Mental impairment- Customers can locate advice on appointeeship, Power of Attorney, and Court of Protection Orders
  • Dyslexia / Dyscalculia- Customers can log in and receive guidance on chip and sign, online banking passcodes and passwords and debit and credit PIN.

Barclays customers can get more information on the app on, and can download and use the app from android and iOS stores.

Free AbilityNet webinar about accessible apps

Find out more about how to build and test accessible apps at our free webinar on 19 March, which will include insight from the Barclays team who developed the Mobile Banking App.

Sign up for free on our website

Free Webinar: Building Accessible Forms

Whatever the purpose of your website or app you’re likely to be using at least one form, whether for gathering information and sign ups or carrying out a transaction. A badly-designed form can have a huge impact on the experience of every user, but they can cause particular problems for people with accessibility needs. 

This webinar will look in detail at the design of accessible forms. AbilityNet’s experts will share their top tips for how to deal with the most common pitfalls and help you reduce abandonment rates and deliver a truly inclusive and effective user experience. 

Sign up for free on GoToWebinar.

2015: The Year That Wearables Start Transforming Lives?

It can be hard keeping up with the constant stream of new gadgets and wearables that make life easier or more productive, such as Nike Fitbit Flex or Microsoft Band. And with the imminent release of the Apple Watch it's set to be the year of the wearables. But what will that mean for people with disabilities?

Microsoft BandWhat are Wearables?

Wearables come with a range of sensors. Some can monitor the number of steps you walk in a day, measure your heartbeat and quality of sleep and in some cases even your blood pressure and sugar levels. Often the goals we set ourselves are ‘gamified’ to pit us against our friends or strangers to see who can walk furthest or burn the most calories.

This is technology at its best – both encouraging us to change our lives for the better and giving us the information we need to make those crucial healthier lifestyle choices.

Here Comes the Apple Watch

Despite the proliferation of wearable technology now available, geeks and non-geeks alike are hotly anticipating the imminent arrival of the Apple Watch. It’s due to hit the shops in the next couple of months and has real potential to transform the lives of disabled people.

Like its counterparts the Apple Watch will provide a wearable device that can be always with you, always on (battery permitting) and always connected. Just like the advent of the first mobile phones, it’s hard to predict at this stage how popular the Apple Watch or ‘smart watches’ will be but, if smartphones are any indication at all, we’ll probably all be wearing something similar in a few years time.

Apple Watch is released in March 2015Accessibility built in

One thing we do know at this point is that, like every other Apple product, the Apple Watch will be packed with accessibility. From Zoom (magnification for those with impaired vision) to VoiceOver (speech output for blind users) to haptic feedback for those with hearing loss, the Apple Watch will uniquely provide access to this rich new area of data collection and presentation like no other wearable has to date.

What consumers get with Apple devices is an ‘eco-system’ of products that interconnect with each other. It doesn’t really matter what device you are using, Apple devices share information, data and settings.

Thinking of software and technology as an eco-system is a relatively new concept for those outside the tech world; and whilst it's not just Apple designing their products this way, it's currently only Apple that are truly including people who need a bit of help with accessibility.

Eco-systems and information hubs

A technology eco-system offers us a whole new way to input data into a personal ‘information hub’. And that hub could be accessed on your phone, your desktop, tablet or your wrist. Then, the information you’ve inputted might even be stored in the cloud and shared with health professionals and others depending on your needs. Imagine if you could share your latest blood pressure readings with your GP without having to book an appointment or even remembering that you have to take it. And people with disabilities are among those who would benefit most.

This year will see an escalation in such devices and their rival ecosystems vying for our attention, driven in no small part by the expected popularity of the Apple Watch. The technology is becoming much more familiar, people are beginning to get used to the idea of wearable, interactive technology and are looking to technology to solve some of the problems of modern life.

Watches that talk to your fridge...

Hand-in-hand with wearables will come a rapid extension of smart devices into the home. People can already connect to and interact with a vast array of ‘things’ from the TV to the home security and lighting system. Some refrigerators can even tell you the calorific content of the food you’ve chosen, let you know when you’ve run out of milk or if you need to buy more green vegetables.

Imagine if your fridge was connected to the pedometer in your watch, it might even let you enjoy a piece of cheesecake if you’ve completed the right number of steps for the day. Now imagine if your cooker could talk to you and tell you when it had reached the correct temperature, it might prevent a blind person from burning their dinner. Imagine if the spy-hole in your front door had face-recognition technology built in, how helpful that would be for someone with dementia who lives alone?

Smarter tech can transform lives

Personalised technology eco-systems will soon be able to support some of the most complex needs in our society and, with rapid uptake of such technology in the mainstream, specialist solutions will become more affordable than ever before.

For disabled and older people the smart home will deliver greater choice, control, piece of mind and independence. Technology will continue to rapidly change and diversify, and at the same time will continue to help change lives for the better. 

Free webinars about disability in the workplace

AbilityNet has launched a series of free webinars for employers, HR professionals and employees to understand how technology can help disabled people in the workplace. The sessions will be led by AbilityNet's workplace assessors and will focus on some of the most common problems they encounter in the workplace including workstation ergonomics, RSI, visual impairment and how to control your computer using your voice.

Each session will explain the reasonable adjustments that are recommended to meet the needs of the employee and ensure compliance with legal standards and best practice.

The monthly webinars are not technical sessions. They are designed to raise awareness amongst HR professionals and other non-technical staff of some of the issues that disabled people face in the workplace and some of the options which could meet their needs. Building better understanding amongst key HR staff is an important way of ensuring that disabled people get the support they need to be effective in the workplace and encourage diversity, as well as reducing the risk of claims of discrimination.

Robin Christopherson, Head of Digital Inclusion at AbilityNet said:

“Very often the technology to support a disabled person is already available in the workplace, but more support is needed for the employee to identify how it can be used, and training is needed to ensure it is being used effectively.

“It’s vital that HR professionals understand what’s already available in terms of technology and training. Many of the reasonable adjustments for disabled employees can be no-cost or low-cost if you know where to look.”

AbilityNet Workplace Webinars, Feb-July 2015

  • HR Update: Workstation ergonomics for a safer, more effective workplace
    Tue, Feb 10, 1:00 PM - 2:00 PM GMT 

Find out more at 


Parliamentary showcase of accessible technology

MPs and others in parliament had the opportunity to learn more about how technology can help disabled people. At a showcase event in Parliament’s Portcullis House on Tuesday 20 January there was cross-party interest in accessible technology from MPs and Peers. The event was organised by the recently launched Digital Accessibility Alliance, which AbilityNet supports, and was sponsored by Helen Goodman MP and Kate Green MP, Shadow Ministers for Work and Pensions.

Andrew Brigden MP and Robin ChristophersonAbilityNet’s Head of Digital Inclusion Robin Christopherson was on hand to show parliamentarians how everyday smartphone apps can help a blind or visually impaired person. Neil Cottrell and Abi James of British Dyslexia Association demonstrated a selection of specialist software for people with dyslexia and Lorna Stephenson showcased BT’s innovative text relay systems for people with a hearing impairment.

Robin Christopherson said:

“Acccessible and inclusive technology is now all around us thanks to the advent of smartphones and tablets. It’s so much easier for disabled people to customise a device so it works for them, without necessarily having to use specialist equipment. One of the main problems we face is letting people know what apps are available for them.”

As well as showing some of the latest innovations in accessible technology, the event was also about highlighting the importance of digital inclusion policies ahead of the next election.

Nigel Lewis, AbilityNet chief executive said:

“We help disabled people every day but we know that many people do not understand how modern technology can help overcome barriers. By showing Parliamentarians what solutions are available we’re hoping to build a cross-party consensus on the need for digital access and inclusion.”

Parliamentary interest in assistive technology is growing; the All Party Parliamentary Disability Group (APPDG) is currently planning a day-long exhibition of assistive technology in the Palace of Westminster in March and has invited members of the British Assistive Technology Association (BATA) to exhibit.

AbilityNet helps create new Accessibility Alliance

AbilityNet is a founding member of the the newly formed Digital Accessibility Alliance, which brings together the previous eAccessibility Forum and the One Voice for Accessible ICT Coalition. Its role is to encourage compliance with relevant legislation, promote universal access to digital services for older people and those with disabilities and generate and promote good practice in delivering eInclusion.

The new Alliance was announced by the UK Government in December 2014 and brings together key players from government departments, regulators, local government, business and the not for profit sector. AbilityNet's CEO Nigel Lewis has been a leading member of the One Voice Coalition and has played a very active part in the development of the Alliance. He said:

"The new Digital Accessibility Alliance has the opportunity to make a real impact by bringing this critical topic into the mainstream instead of being left as an afterthought. Only by working together can we make digital inclusion a reality and help to transform the lives of disabled and elderly people everywhere."

RNIB Chair Kevin Carey will chair the new AllianceThe Digital Accessibility Alliance will be chaired by Kevin Carey (pictured), who is also Chair of the RNIB. He said:

“After nearly 20 years of working in the accessibility field, we need to change with technology. We need an agenda to move forward and not play catch up. I look forward to chairing the Alliance to make a positive impact on the lives of disabled and older people.”

Culture and the Digital Economy Minister Ed Vaizey said:

“The explosion of digital services provides endless opportunities for all – but the Government is all too aware that disabled and older people can often unintentionally be left behind. By bringing together the various parties, through the Alliance, we can work together to address any issues and make a difference.”

The Alliance is open to all those with a publicly declared commitment to its aims and objectives, including, (but not limited to), government departments, regulators, local government, business, universities and academia and the not-for- profit sector. It will meet regularly to provide updates on progress and further suggestions to the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy.

The Alliance will continue the work of the eAccessibility Forum, which worked to ensure accessibility, affordability and equal participating for disabled users in the digital economy. It will also build upon the work of the OneVoice for Accessible ICT Coalition.