Free Webinar: Autism and Accessibility, Design Challenges and Solutions

Accessibility never sits still and in April we'll be focussing on autism and accessibility - looking at the design challenges but also the solutions for people with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). Make sure you register to secure your place, even if unable to attend, as you'll receive details about when recordings will be made available to watch.

Autism and Accessibility, Design Challenges and Solutions

April 17 2018 at 1:00 PM BST

Summary of content:
This webinar will begin with an overview of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The current accessibility concerns for people with ASD will then be shared along with details of why bleeding-edge technology may not be autism-friendly. The webinar will conclude with examples of how technology can be helpful and beneficial for people on the autism spectrum.

Who it would be useful for:
Anyone working or interested in web accessibility and usability including but not limited to: developers, UX and UI designers, project managers, content providers, and business owners.

Please register for Autism and Accessibility, Design Challenges and Solutions webinar to secure your place.
After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

Three cool smart glasses to help people who are blind or have sight loss

Last week saw the world's largest assistive technology fair CSUN held in San Diego and among the many forward-looking tech items on show were three noteable smart glasses with integrated internet-connected cameras. Helping the visually impaired and blind to see, these glasses are definitely worth a second look.

33rd annual CSUN assistive tech conference

This annual conference showcases all that is new and hot in the area of inclusive tech - both specialist and mainstream - and so naturally is of interest to AbilityNet and people with disabilities worldwide.

Nu EyesAmongst the many hundreds of exhibitors' offerings, three sets of smart glasses caught my eye.

1. NuEyes Pro from NuEyes

NuEyes bill their smart glasses as an electronic visual prosthesis for people with low or no vision. The lightweight glasses run on Android and include features like up to 12x magnification, the ability to change the colours and contrast of what you are looking at, bar/QR code scanning and OCR (optical character recognition) to recognise and speak out print documents. They can either be operated with a wireless controller or using simple voice commands.

The NuEyes Pro smart glasses are very powerful but also very pricey. Coming in at $5995 they're really meant to be provided under health insurance or, possibly one day, on the NHS.


AIRA are smart glasses that also use a camera and connectivity to bring assistance to people with a visual impairment. In this case, however, what you're connected to is a trained assistant who provides spoken feedback about what you are looking at. Useful for help with identifying objects, reading documents, menus or medication. These offer a pair of eyes to guide you through unfamiliar routes or indoor surroundings or perhaps to provide some crucial fashion advice! Currently only available in the US, the AIRA service is being trailled in other countries including the UK.

Aira glasses

Monthly price plans in the US start at $89 for 100 minutes of assistance. This includes the smart glasses, insurance and training on how to use them.

3. QD Laser

With QD Laser we're now getting really futuristic. Not yet available for consumers, this product does away with mini computer-screens mounted in front of your eyes and instead projects images directly on to your retina using lazers. Providing similar capabilities to the NuEyes technology above but with less bulk and weight, this technology is still at least a year away - although functioning prototypes were available on show at the QD Laser booth. They are estimated to cost a similar amount as the NuEyes product above – coming in at around $5000.

So those are the three smart specs that were making a splash at CSUN this year. For an audio tour of each product and interviews with each manufacturer, check out the Blind Bargains podcast.

And finally... Apple's Augmented Reality glasses may be closer than we think

Let's round off with a recent patent by Apple which, if this ever becomes a commercial product, it would undoubtedly make the wearing of smart specs a thoroughly normal practice. Apple would bring the benefits of reality augmented by computer-provided images, audio and spoken information to millions of users, and not just those with a vision impairment.

According to a recent Mashable article, reports suggest that the new microLED displays that Apple is working on - similar to more conventional OLED screens but brighter and consuming less energy — won't just be something for Apple Watches and iPhones.

The next-gen screen technology will also serve as the display for a new kind of product: Apple-made augmented-reality glasses - at least according to a report from DigiTimes. Let's hope that iGlasses (hey, that's quite catchy) are the next big thing, helping everyone with a better, brighter vision of the future.

Robin Christopherson is head of digital inclusion at AbilityNet.

Find more of Robin's blogs on accessibility and assistive tech, here. 

Related articles

BATA launches campaign to scrap £200 contribution for DSAs

BATA logoThe British Assistive Technology Association (BATA) has published research that shows the £200 charge faced by students who receive laptops under the Disabled Students Allowances (DSAs) is putting them off accessing assistive technology.

BATA’s report has revealed that there has been a worrying 30% drop in the number of students taking up assistive technology equipment recommended to them by professional assessors since the £200 contribution was brought in.

And other disturbing evidence gained by BATA shows that students with specific learning difficulties and mental health issues are those most affected by the charge.

As the report states, the £200 charge generates a very small amount of savings for the Government, yet it is having a negative impact on vulnerable people.

According to the report: “The direct cost saving from the introduction of the contribution is less than £5 million, out of a Higher Education budget of some £33 billion. This is roughly one hundredth of one percent - but is directly, negatively impacting some of the most vulnerable in society.”

On the back of its findings BATA has launched a campaign to persuade the Government to add the £200 charge for students to their student loan.

As part of this effort BATA has sent the report to over 650 MPs who have been asked to push the Minister for Universities, Sam Gyimah, to consider including the £200 charge in each student’s loan.

Skype is paving the way to more accessible cross-platform apps

Last week I published an article about Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) - apps that can be run across different devices with minimal changes – and the challenges they represent when it comes to being accessible and inclusive for all. Since that post went live Microsoft has announced its roadmap for addressing some of the pitfalls posed by PWAs in relation to its new Skype app. This is great news for disabled users worldwide.

The Progressive Web App problem

As we discussed in my previous post on PWAs, while Progressive Web Apps are a handy new approach to ‘build-once’ apps because they can be easily repurposed for different platforms, they are basically websites that run in an app container (even when a connection to the internet is lost/ you’re offline). But they are a long way from offering the accessibility and usability of native mobile apps for people with disabilities.

illustration of web app development

A noteable example is the new Skype app that has recently popped up across Windows, Mac, iOS and Android. It showed all of the bad sides of PWAs: complex and confusing navigation for blind and low vision users, loss of keyboard support for those with dexterity or motor difficulties, and focus issues and difficulties identifying and activating controls for both of these groups and others besides.

Microsoft: When it comes to Skype accessibility, we hear you

In a post published on Friday Microsoft outlined planned accessibility improvements for Skype, which is great news for millions of users who have been struggling with the update in recent months.

From the post:

“Across Microsoft, we are working to make technology more accessible and empower people to achieve more. We take feedback very seriously and are grateful to our active accessibility community who point us to areas of improvement. Following recent updates to Skype, your comments helped direct us to the areas of our new versions where change was most needed and could be most impactful.

"We have been working continuously since that time to understand the needs of our customers and have recently issued updates across platforms containing several improvements to address those issues. Accessibility is a journey and there are more fixes to come and we actively want and encourage feedback so we can deliver the right experience that empowers all our customers.”

The outlined changes, slated for all supported platforms using the new web-app version of Skype, will focus on keyboard support (for those who can only use a keyboard and not a mouse), blind users and those with low vision. They include:

  • Improving visible keyboard focus - ie ensuring that it's obvious which link or button etc is 'active' as a keyboard user tabs through the application. Without this you have no idea where you are or what you can interact with. The app is effectively unusable.
  • Eliminating cases where keyboard focus moves to non-actionable controls - in other words as you Tab through the app you land on things that you can do nothing with. Dead space or eye-candy icons that aren't controls 'capture' your keyboard focus and are confusing and time-consuming.
    skype app on phone and cup of coffee, at desk
  • Ensuring keyboard focus moves back to the controls that opened a dialog or menu after the dialog or menu was closed - so that a keyboard or blind user who opens a pop-up box and chooses a button to close it again, say, is taken back to where they were before and not right at the top of the app once again only to have to Tab dozens of times to get back to where they were.
  • Improving the accessible names and labels of controls and improving the control types used - eg making sure that the button to hang up a call, say, is intuitively labelled 'End call' and announced as what it is, a button, and not a something else like a link.

Who’ll be willing to pay for PWA accessibility?

Almost all of the above issues (and many more) that will have to be ‘retro-fitted’ here in this PWA version of Skype, are an automatic aspect of accessibility that you largely get ‘for free’ in native applications – whether it be on Windows, Mac, iOS or Android.

So while Microsoft, with its continuing commitment to inclusion across all its products, is providing in Skype an excellent example of going that ‘extra mile’ to layer accessibility onto this new convoy of PWAs, how many other organisations – including those thousands of solo app developers – will go to that same additional effort and expense?

Despite Microsoft paving the way to more inclusive PWAs, how many others will follow them on this journey? It’s looking like, in a largely PWA-driven future, many people with disabilities will be left by the roadside.

Related blogs: 

5 ways AI could transform digital accessibility

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is increasingly being built into our digital world. And there are great opportunities to maximise AI to make the digital world more accessible for people with disabilities. Here, AbilityNet’s senior accessibility and usability consultant Joe Chidzik explores some of the possibilities and some of the ways AI is already changing things for disabled people.

1. AI could provide automatic sign language provision 

The UK government requires websites to meet level AA of the WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) standard. The requirement for sign language is an AAA requirement under WCAG (higher than AA) so it is very difficult to meet and unfortunately very few websites will do it. It is also difficult to provide sign language for multimedia. With an AI-based service, this could potentially happen automatically, which would be would be of great benefit for people who are deaf or have hearing loss.

Check out further information from Nvidia on AI and sign language

hands signing - sign language

Pic credit: Nvidia

2. AI already provides language translation and captioning for people who are deaf

Microsoft offers a free service through the Microsoft Translator app where audio is translated into other languages, and into text (for captions). People who have English as a second language benefit, as do people who are deaf or who have hearing loss.

Read more about Microsoft Translator app helping people who are deaf here

3. AI provides automatic image recognition and alt text for people who are blind

One of the most common issues with accessibility is the lack of alternative text for images, which means people who are blind or have sight loss could be missing important information. Google's Cloud Vision API uses neural networks to classify images, and to extract textual information.


Read related article: How AI is empowering people on the autism spectrum


There is a great deal of nuance when a web editor is selecting appropriate alt text, depending on the purpose the image is the image decorative, and so should it be ignored? If it’s information-rich, what information is the designer conveying?

We’re not sure if AI could crack these questions, but it would still be a useful step forward for it to automatically give some information when no one has entered information manually.

Find out more about the Cloud Vision API, image recognition and alt text.

4. AI could help make information easier to understand for those with reading difficulties

The internet is full of an ever-growing amount of information. Distilling that information is a challenge that machine learning is working towards. Services are being developed to automatically summarise lengthy articles by creating short abstracts, or related headlines.

If done well - and it might take machines a while to learn to do it really well—this could be good for creating ‘easier-to-read’ content or snapshots of articles to help users with reading difficulties or those who feel easily overwhelmed by information.

Find out more about how AI could help us more quickly find the info we need, on Technology Review and here on Machine Learning Mastery

5. AI could eventually make entire websites accessible!

One day AI might be so clever it can automatically make web pages entirely accessible. Until then, you can get your site checked by AbilityNet’s Accessibility team!

Further reading:



Alan Brooks becomes new AbilityNet Chairman

AbilityNet has appointed Alan Brooks as our new Chairman, replacing Dr Michael Taylor, who retired at the end of last year. Alan is an experienced charity Chairman, Trustee and Treasurer with a comprehensive understanding of charity governance, finance and law. He retired as Chairman of Phyllis Tuckwell Hospice Care in November 2017 having served a full term of nine years as a Trustee. He serves as Trustee/Treasurer of Aerobility and Chairman of Naval Families Federation.

Alan Brooks, new AbilityNet Chairman with CEO Nigel Lewis

In his professional career Alan has held senior management appointments in several diverse international corporations including Volvo, Dunlop, Nabisco and The Rank Organisation.

In recent years, he has worked as an independent management consultant which has enabled him to devote more time for pro-bono work in the charitable sector. Alan is also a Liveryman of The Worshipful Company of Information Technologists and Freeman of The City of London.

Nigel Lewis, AbilityNet CEO said:

“We are delighted to welcome Alan Brooks as our new Chairman of AbilityNet. Alan’s background and experience will be a real benefit to AbilityNet to help us to grow and help more disabled and older people now we are in our 20th year.

“I want to thank Dr Michael Taylor, who retired as chairman at the end of 2017, for all of his support, guidance and wisdom over the last nine years. He helped enormously and played a significant role in AbilityNet’s transformation over the last ten years. This has allowed us to help and support 100,000s of disabled and older people to use technology in a better way to improve their lives.”


Upcoming Web Accessibility and Autism Related Webinars

Accessibility never sits still and in the coming months we will be hosting two free webinars to share the latest news from the sector. Our first webinar in March will focus on 'What's new in WCAG 2.1' and will look at the new success criteria from the recent WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) 2.1 release.

Then in April we'll be focussing on autism and accessibility - looking at the design challenges but also the solutions for people with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). Make sure you register to secure your place, even if unable to attend, as you'll receive details about when recordings will be made available to watch.

What's new in WCAG 2.1

March 27 2018 at 1:00 PM BST

Summary of content:
This webinar will start with a general introduction to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), followed by an overview of WCAG 2.0 guidelines. On the 30th of January 2018 new success criteria were added as part of the WCAG.2.1 release which extends the guidelines. During the webinar I will talk about the additional guidelines which could address additional accessibility barriers - this is in anticipation of the final draft of the guidelines which should be released by June 2018.

Who it would be useful for:
Anyone working or interested in web accessibility and usability including but not limited to: developers, UX and UI designers, project managers, content providers, and business owners.

Please register for our What's new in WCAG 2.1 webinar to secure your place.
After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

Autism and Accessibility, Design Challenges and Solutions

April 17 2018 at 1:00 PM BST

Summary of content:
This webinar will begin with an overview of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The current accessibility concerns for people with ASD will then be shared along with details of why bleeding-edge technology may not be autism-friendly. The webinar will conclude with examples of how technology can be helpful and beneficial for people on the autism spectrum.

Who it would be useful for:
Anyone working or interested in web accessibility and usability including but not limited to: developers, UX and UI designers, project managers, content providers, and business owners.

Please register for Autism and Accessibility, Design Challenges and Solutions webinar to secure your place.
After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

Why the future of apps is good news for developers but bad news for people with disabilities

Some say that Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) are the future for both desktop and mobile apps, but these ‘build once, run everywhere’ apps are almost certainly bad news for people with disabilities.

What are Progressive Web Apps?

Over the past 15 years websites have slowly become less like static sources of information and more like online applications that make heavy use of browser-based technologies such as JavaScript. Think of Facebook and how much more than a simple website it is.

Many developers wanted a way of taking their websites, which were close to being fully-fledged applications, and ‘wrapping’ them in a suitable app-wrapper, so they could qualify as apps in the iOS or Android stores for download like any other app.

vector image for PWAs For them the attraction is being able to build one website for use in a browser, and then simply tweaking it to be a deliver it as a native app. That way you get a consistent experience whether you access it in a browser on your computer, in a browser on your phone or as an app downloaded from your phone’s app store.

The one thing that these complicated 'all-doing' web applications have consistently needed is an internet connection. However, as mobile processors and browsers became more powerful, more and more web apps can run almost entirely offline. The mini programs, built with JavaScript and other technologies, running in the web page became so powerful that functions that used to be sent to the Cloud are now all performed in the browser.

In 2015, designer Frances Berriman and Google engineer Alex Russell coined the term "progressive web apps" to describe such websites that take advantage of these new features supported by modern browsers. Two significant features web apps need to qualify as a PWA is the ability to perform much or all of their functions offline, and also to responsively resize their layout to cater for a wide range of screen sizes.

The rise of the Progressive Web App

Being able to buildnonce and deploy everywhere (with minimal additional effort) may well have sealed the future of both desktop and mobile apps.

Microsoft, for example, has used a flavour of PWA to build new versions of their Skype 2 app, as well as their new workplace collaboration platform Teams 3. Their goal is to do away with multiple versions of these products and instead have a unified web-based core to the apps on all their platforms.

PWAs aren’t good for PWDs

The problem (and it’s a big one) is that the rise of complicated websites and web apps spells bad news for people with disabilities (PWDs).

Compared to a native mobile app or piece of software on your computer, modern websites and web apps are much less easy to navigate and operate for disabled users. 

Complex websites and web apps (PWAs) are rarely suitable for those using just a keyboard without a mouse. 

For example a screen reader like myself finds moving around new websites is tiring and laborious, as I have to tab through the pages as I can't see the page layout. Very often all the information menus, links and controls are all presented in one long overwhelming document - like a novel written on a roll of toilet paper. 

In contrast a native app is always restricted to a single pane, such as the in-box in an email app, and you can use hotkeys to jump to other areas, such as the menu or toolbar, when you need them. It's easier to navigate the whole app and much simpler to use each screen.

PWAs would've been difficult for Stephen Hawking too

It's also problematic for those using some voice commands on Dragon, as well as those using switch control such as that used by highly inspirational and sadly missed physicist Professor Hawking (pictured below).

Stephen Hawking

When the new web-app version of Skype came out for both Windows and Mac OS, the response on social media from the disabled community (lead in most part by blind users) was marked. People scrambled to locate and download the earlier version and hurriedly uninstalled the web-based update.

Microsoft values accessibility and inclusive design very highly, but it will take a significant effort to reproduce the usability benefits of native apps within these new PWA-style versions. It remains to be seen how easy it will be for companies to do this in their new PWAs going forward – and how many of them will bother.

Useful links

ENTER NOW: Tech4Good Awards 2018 - tech ideas that make the world a better place

Once again we're looking for the tech ideas that are making the world a better place as entries are open for AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards 2018. Take a look at the feedbcak from our launche event below - or head over to the Tech4Good Awards website to submit your entry now.

Amazing tech is changing lives

What Simone Enefer-Doy, CEO of Lifelites and winner of AbilityNet’s first ever Tech4Good Award can offer terminally-ill and disabled children through technology is wonder, connection and joy. The CEO and her team have always made the most of technology to offer better lives for children and their families. But she says a recent tech development has taken things to a new level. 

Lifelites young boy using Eye Gaze MyGaze tech

“Eye gaze changed everything,” she says of the tech which enables people to communicate with their computer and other people just by using their eyes (see photo above).

"In Kent, there are two brothers who’ve been able to communicate for the first time and play games together using eye gaze tech (a version called myGaze). It has given the boy (who is unable to use his body) a connection to his family; the family has suddenly become a unit."

The AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards offer new opportunities to winners and finalists

“Before winning the AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards Accessibility Award in 2011,” says Simone Enefer-Doy, “I felt we were in a silo trying to deliver projects. But Tech4Good gave us the confidence to say to our peers that what we do is great, and 'please support us'. We were given incredible opportunities for networking and learnings around potential future development.”

Each year, AbilityNet champions some of the brightest ideas such as this at the AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards, supported by BT.

Last week, some of the leading lights in this fast-evolving world, including Simone Enefer-Doy, were at the launch of the 2018 Awards at the BT Tower in London. We glimpsed what the future might hold in the #tech4good space in an age of 5G and AI (artificial intelligence).

Femi at Tech4Good awardsFrom the eleven year old with Tourettes Syndrome (Femi Owolade-Coombes, pictured right) who teaches coding skills to disadvantaged children - helping support future job prospects, to the two doctors working worldwide to identify cancer at much earlier stages using AI (C the Signs), to What3Words helping disaster relief teams pinpoint exact locations to within three square meters using encoded GPS coordinates - former winners and finalists really are changing the world.

Last year, finalists together received more than 35,000 votes on Twitter for the People's Award which is chosen by the public. In the eighth year of the Awards, we hope for even more votes. For our finalists, who’ll be announced on 12 June, this is a great opportunity for recognition and wider support.

It's not the tech, it's how you use it

“We’re not looking for the most state of the art technology out there,” says Mark Walker, who organises the AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards. “We’re looking to see how people use technology to do something exceptional.” His AbilityNet colleague, Robin Christopherson, Head of Digital Inclusion commented: “People are awakening to the value of diversity. Tech is the single most empowering or enabling factor in society at the moment.”

There were clear signs and conversations pointing to a real drive to use technology positively and more effectively in society.

Microsoft hacks

Hector Minto, Technology Evangelist at Microsoft, highlighted the fact that in the regular technology hacks held by Microsoft, projects focusing on disability and accessibility have moved from “being in their tens to their hundreds” in recent times.

The event wrapped up with a comment from Adam Freeman, Managing Director of Freeformers, who encapsulated what the awards stand for. “We’ve (society) moved from an age of working with our hands to working with our head, and we are moving to work with our hearts, using technology. It’s about who you are and how you work with others, and technology can offer tools that help.”

heart circuit boardFreeman's organisation has trained more than 50,000 corporate employees and more than 4,000 young people to adapt to a digital economy.

Also giving his thoughts on a changing digital economy, panellist and young tech entrepreneur Ben Towers, whose in the stages of setting up a new app to help people achieve their health goal, told delegates: “We live at a time when there are all sort of things happening in the world, and young people have more access to it - we see the effects of war. Young people want to take action, they’re thinking 'how can I solve this?'."

Do you have a tech venture which is changing society for the better? You can enter on the Tech4Good website now:

Nominations close on Tuesday 8 May 2018.

Find out more about the 2018 AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards.

AbilityNet remembers Stephen Hawking

"It’s impossible to imagine a more inspirational ambassador for technology and its enormous potential to change lives."

Everyone at AbilityNet is saddened to hear about the death of renowned scientist Stephen Hawking at the age of 76. We have often featured him on our website because, apart from being one of the best, if not the best scientific minds of his generation, he became one of the best known users of adaptive technology. Most will know that he was diagnosed with the debilitating condition, Motor Neurone Disease in his twenties and only given a few years to live.

Without the ability to speak, Prof Hawking needed to harness the power of technology to help him In his work. He could at one time control the computer by using one hand, but by 2005 this movement was gradually deteriorating, and he needed another way to use the computer. The technology that he chose to work with to keep him working was a switch which was connected to his glasses and could detect movements in his facial muscles.

This switch was connected to software that enabled him to use the mouse to control his computer. Some people wondered if this would be a barrier to his work but we continued to benefit from his genius. Hear Professor Brian Cox reflecting on Stephen Hawking's legacy 

In 2012 Hawking was presented with AbilityNet's Tech4Good Special Award for the way that he embraced technology to enable him to keep working, despite his worsening condition. You can listen to his acceptance speech, below.  


Robin Christopherson, AbilityNet’s head of digital inclusion looked at the technology that Hawking was using back in 2015 to not only communicate, but to write papers and also to give lectures. Christopherson was lucky enough to meet the Hawking and gave his reflections on the scientist's death.

“I was fortunate to have briefly met Professor Hawking at technology conferences and exchange a few fascinating words,” says Christopherson. “It’s impossible to imagine a more inspirational ambassador for technology and its enormous potential to change lives and enable people, regardless of any disability or impairment they may have, to reach their full potential. Without technology the world would not have benefitted from the wry humour, immense intellect and almost incalculable scientific contributions of the dearly loved and now sorely missed Professor Stephen Hawking.”

Professor Hawking was a great example of someone who embraced adaptive technology to get his work done and he has been, and will continue to be, a great inspiration to people around the world for his spirit.

Are you an older person or someone with a disability who'd like help using technology?

Check out our IT free volunteering service.