Does the Rubik’s Cube really need to be Bluetooth? Inclusive design and the future of connected devices

From earbuds to adult toys, should even the Rubik’s Cube now be Bluetooth? Some of these products and devices are gimmicks and some are game-changers – but smarter devices mean more inclusion when it comes to people with disabilities.

LED Rubik's cube

With connectivity comes choice

Bluetooth connectivity is cheap and commonplace. Here’s an article explaining that even the smash hit Rubik's Cube from the 80s might now get Bluetooth connectivity. Firmly in the ‘gimmick’ camp, this version of the classic cube puzzle would enable your smartphone to know the exact orientation of its faces at any time and could coach you to the final solution. Cool, but not life-changing.

The bigger picture is that Bluetooth (or indeed wireless connectivity of all flavours  - and there are a few different types out there), is able to provide alternative ways of interacting with gadgets and appliances. And, choice is what it’s all about when it comes to inclusive design. Can’t see the fiddly buttons or tiny screen on your thermostat or the cryptic symbols on your dishwasher? Let the larger screen of a tablet or smartphone help by becoming an easy-to-use remote control.

For older people, or those with a disability, the ability to make semi-smart devices (such as thermostats, microwaves, bathroom scales - pictured, blood pressure or glucose monitors) more inclusive is not insignificant. We are increasingly able to connect such devices (via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth) to our smartphone. This can mean a larger display of a device that would otherwise be difficult to see; or the voicebox of a device that would otherwise be mute; or the remote control of a device that would otherwise be too fiddly to use.

Garmin smart scalesUsers are already demanding to be able to control the heating in their home from the comfort of their bed using an app on their phone. They want to be able to track their weight, heart rate or blood pressure over days and weeks and again it’s an app that does this and thus connectivity is required. It won’t be disabled people or the elderly that will be driving this agenda, but these communities will be benefiting from it disproportionately if a little bit of good practice in inclusive design is observed along the way.

Speech or screen – the choice is yours

Does all this mean that a smartphone or tablet are essential possessions for older or disabled users in order to feel included in a digital future? Not necessarily – but there’s no doubt that they are becoming more useful, affordable and smarter every day. Though simpler than a computer, there’s still a considerable learning curve and that might not be for everyone.

Enter the voice assistant. We’ve had the likes of Siri and the Google Assistant in our phones for several years, but smart speakers like the Amazon Echo are increasingly providing an even simpler alternative to the smartphone or tablet. I’ve written several articles on the versatile power of the voice assistant, so I won’t revisit the topic here. Suffice to say that, in the house at least, we now have an even easier way of connecting to all our Bluetooth and wireless devices and controlling them with intuitive voice commands.  As a blind person who is a power user when it comes to IT, but a complete novice when it comes to less inclusive devices, I can now say “Start a hot wash”, “Record Blue Planet” and “Turn the heat up and lower the lights”. Three cheers for a more connected, more inclusive, future.

A shout out for low-tech

I’ll finish off with a quick shout out for low-tech solutions. Having a hi-tech way of wirelessly interfacing with devices is indeed a game-changer in many cases. When it comes to getting cash out, for example, I long for the day when I can use the speech on my phone to interface with the ATM rather than relying on the honesty of complete strangers to choose options on my behalf and not then run off with my money. But sometimes, the simple low-tech option works just as well.

For example, for blind people, putting a couple of self-adhesive rubber bumps (available in packs for a few pence each) at the points around the washing machine dial that represent a hot and colour wash is an elegant solution. Similarly, putting an elastic band around the conditioner bottle to distinguish it from shampoo works a treat. There are hi-tech AI solutions that work as well, but let’s not forget simple adaptations along the way. An elastic band never needs charging after all, and a humble rubber bump still works when the wi-fi’s down…

Robin Christopherson is head of digital inclusion at AbilityNet. He blogs regularly here


Tech4Good Accessibility Award 2018: Facebook reaches finals with Automatic Alt Text and image recognition features

More than one billion photos are shared on Facebook every day, and artificial intelligence is now making many more of those images accessible to Facebook users with the development of Automatic Alt Text.

Through research with the vision loss community, Facebook learned that for users of screen readers, who are blind or have vision loss, it wasn't straightforward to know what was in a photo that arrived in their News Feed. 

So in 2016, Facebook launched Automatic Alt Text (AAT) - a feature that uses object recognition technology to describe photos to people who are blind or who have low vision and use screen readers. And at the end of 2017, the social media platform also launched a Face Recognition tool that tells people using screen readers who appears in photos in their News Feed, even if they aren’t tagged (as long as that person has allowed this option in their settings).

Facebook labelling an image using Automatic Alt Text

Facebook’s efforts to make the social media platform more accessible to people who have sight loss and those who are blind has earned them a place in the finals of the Tech4Good Accessibility Award - with the winner announced at BT Centre on 17 July.

Now in their eighth year the awards are supported by BT and celebrate some of the amazing people who use tech to help make the world a better place.

Robin Christopherson, head of digital inclusion at AbilityNet commented: "In a popular social media platform like Facebook, it’s impossible to expect every user to add descriptions to their images. This smart use of AI gets around that problem and is a game changer for disabled users."

Using artificial intelligence and machine-learning for accessibility

AAT was developed by programming machines using AI and was updated and refined based on feedback from multiple rounds of user research. The system can currently detect more than one hundred concepts, such as the number of people in a photo, whether people are smiling and physical objects like a “car”, “tree”, “mountain”, and others. Currently, about 75% of photos on Facebook now have at least one image identified by AAT.

The platform's Face Recognition technology analyses the pixels in photos and videos, such as a user’s profile picture and photos and videos that the user has been tagged in, to calculate a unique number, which is called a template.  When photos and videos are uploaded to Facebook’s systems, those images are compared to the template to find matches.  With this technology, people using screen readers can know who appears in photos in their News Feed, even if they aren’t tagged.

Manual alt text

The traditional mechanism for describing photos to people with vision loss is the use of alt text. Traditionally, alt text requires that the content creator/ person who uploads an image include a secondary description (as well a written post) for each photo, which is then read by a screen reader.  This is time-consuming for the person posting and is also extremely uncommon as too many people don't know about the value of alt-text.

To address this challenge, Facebook created automatic tools powered by AI to describe photos on Facebook, which allow Facebook to dramatically increase the number of photos that have supplemental text descriptions. Facebook told Tech4Good judges that as it continues to improve its object and face recognition services, AAT and Face Recognition will continue to provide more descriptive narratives for visual content.

Vote now in the Tech4Good People's Award

The People’s Award is one of Tech4Good's most sought Awards because it is chosen by the public, voting online via Instagram, Twitter or on the tech4Good website.

Tech4Good Accessibility Award 2018: Be My Eyes harnesses the power of 1.5 million volunteers to help blind people in 150 countries

Vicky, a mum of three in Edinburgh has been blind since birth. Her husband Robbie has very limited vision. They mostly manage as a family independently. But Vicky says that sometimes she just needs someone with vision to help her with tasks such as matching her children's socks or in situations such as checking the expiration date of food in her fridge.

This is where Be My Eyes comes in. The free app, created by Hans Wiberg, has more than one and a half million volunteers who are available day and night via live video link to help a blind person in such instances. It's currently being used in 150 different countries with help provided in 180 different languages and is a finalist in this year's AbilityNet Tech4Good Accessibility Award.

"We live in a world that is poorly designed for people with visual impairments, and I believe that technology can help change that," says Alexander Hauerslev Jensen, community director at Be My Eyes.

"I believe that Be My Eyes is a very powerful tool as it can help people lead more independent lives. The simplicity and flexibility of Be My Eyes make it works so well for both our blind users and for our sighted volunteers, and I really believe that Be My Eyes harnesses the power of generosity, technology, and human connection. We hope to win the Tech4Good award 2018 so we can get a step closer to making the world more accessible for people with disabilities,” he adds. 

Now in their eighth year, the AbilityNet Tech4Good awards are supported by BT and celebrate some of the amazing people who use tech to help make the world a better place.

Connecting users to corporate customer service teams

The Be My Eyes team has recently launched a new feature called Specialized Help that enables companies to support disabled customers via video link. Microsoft is one of its first customers. Users can connect to the company’s (Microsoft) Disability Answer Desk and can get help with such tasks as setting up Microsoft Office or checking an internet connection, for example. This means the company becomes more accessible to blind and partially-sighted people.

Robin Christopherson, head of digital inclusion at AbilityNet says of the app: “Be My Eyes combines the smarts of your phone, crowdsourced help from around the world and pure simplicity to address the everyday needs of blind people that, as yet, no AI can reach. This is one to watch.”

This Microsoft Be My Eyes short film shows the amazing story behind this app:


AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards

The awards celebrate the technology innovations that are improving lives across society. Categories include the BT Connected Society Award, BT Young Pioneer Award and the Digital Skills Award, as well as the Accessibility Award. Winners across all categories will be announced on 17 July in London at BT Centre.

How can technology help people with Macular Degeneration?

It is Macular Disease Awareness week this week.  We wanted to explore how technology might be able to help you if you have this condition.

Commonly asked questions about macular disease and macular degeneration

x-ray of eyeball showing signs of macular diseaseMy Gran has macular disease and is struggling to order her shopping. What quick and easy changes could I make to help her out?

You might be surprised just how much you can do to change the settings on your computer just by making a few changes. A good start would be to go to our My Computer My Way website which provides step by step guides on how to customise Windows, Apple and Android computers, laptops and smartphones.

Hopefully that will help but if you are still having difficulties we have a network of volunteers who can help people in their own homes.

I can cope fairly well with using a computer but I struggle to cope with my correspondence.

There are definitely lots of options that can help. You can either scan letters in with a scanner and use Optical Character Recognition and text to speech to read it out to you, or you can use a device such as Readdesk to take a photo of the document and then have it read out to you. If you have a smartphone there are some really useful apps to consider using which will alow you to deal with correspondence and can also help with other aspects of your life.

My Dad is trying to finish a book of poetry off but can't really see the letters on a keyboard. What can help him?

hi-vis keyboardThere are lots of different types of keyboards available which could help people who are having dificulty seeing the keyboard. For example a larger keyboard with hi-vis stickers on it might be useful - these can be purchased from many different places including the RNIB shop.  You can even get large print wireless keyboard too, so this cuts down on the amount of wires everywhere.  Also don't forget that voice recognition is an easy alternative to using the keyboard, and you  can easily make the text easier to see on the screen.

Case Study: Harry and Helen go shopping again

Harry and his wife Helen are both very independent and enjoy going the local supermarket to get their groceries.  They need to find a useful way of being able to make shoppAmazon Echoing lists throughout the week so they can remember what to buy on a Friday morning which is their shopping morning.    They have just bought a Amazon Echo device as they like to listen to different music and radio stations.

One of our volunteers Lucy showed them both how to make lists on their Echo device and then getting Siri to read out the list to them when they are in the supermarket.

How can we help?

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

  • Call our free Helpline on 0800 269 545 and our friendly, knowledgeable staff will offer one-to-one help.
  • If you are in work your employer has a responsibility to make Reasonable Adjustments which include helping you with invisible illnesses. Find out more about how we help disabled in the workplace.
  • Arrange a home visit from one of our amazing AbilityNet ITCanHelp volunteers. 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 computers and vision impairment useful
  • My Computer My Way is our free interactive guide to all the accessibility features built into current desktops, laptops, tables and smartphones.

Talking to the internet – how to get millions of over 55s online

Recent figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) show that 4.8m of over 55s are still offline - they represent 94% of the remaining people in the UK who have yet to go digital, according to the charity Ageing Better. Without concerted efforts, this group will increasingly miss out on essential online services, says the charity. Let’s talk about ‘the conversational internet’ and how it could help some of those people.

Digital made simple

Getting online is a challenge. For the digitally uninitiated (and even for those who are pretty savvy) It requires a level of knowledge about how to interact with technology that isn’t acquired overnight. It takes months if not years to be confident about what to do when an unfamiliar pop-up asks you an often worryingly obscure question, and even more digital nouse to trouble-shoot something on a computer or tablet when things go wrong.

While it’s no longer necessary to read an instruction manual to use a tablet or smartphone, or worry whether your tablet’s antivirus is up-to-date (or indeed if it even has one), anyone who has had to support a relative or friend in the early/on-going stages of initiation into the world of mobile tapping, swiping and scrolling will know that things are still far from simple.

Pictured: Amazon Echo Show, Echo and Echo Spot

Echo Show with screenAmazon Echo Echo spot

The conversational internet

What could be easier than natural, conversational speech as a way of interfacing with today’s diverse digital world? I’ve discussed voice assistants in several recent posts: how simply speaking to the air and getting useful information, being entertained and even performing sophisticated tasks is the next significant chapter in computing. Do check out these posts for the full picture on how natural language and 'ambient computing' (voice-first smart assistants which can live in a range of devices) will form a significant feature in all our digital futures:

The older, less digitally adept generation and those of all ages with disabilities may well benefit most from these advancements in more natural and conversational interactions with the digital world.

If some devices have screens then great – additional information or the face of a loved-one can be displayed, and people who are deaf will have spoken information presented visually. For those who can hear and speak, at the heart of these devices is the ability to communicate with them conversationally and with increasing flexibility. 

We’re certainly not anywhere near satisfying the toughest trial of AI – the Turing test – but we’re getting closer every week. In the meantime, government at all levels and companies of all sizes are focusing budgets and resources towards the future of the internet - a future where services delivered through the conversational internet may be even more significant than the standard digital delivery channels of today. Tapping has already exceeded clicking. Similarly, speaking will undoubtedly one day outstrip tapping as the main method in which most people conduct their digital lives.

Robin Christopherson is head of digital inclusion at AbilityNet. Find more of his blogs here. 

If you'd like help getting online or would like an AbilityNet volunteer to help you get online, call 0800 269 454 or email


Are Robots the Future of Education?

As much as you may have concerns about robots and the way we could be interacting with them in the future, it’s important to consider how AI and robotics can and do benefit the education of current and future generations.

Already robots are being used to help assist and teach children with autism and they’re being used to allow students with health conditions or impairments to attend school remotely.

The sector is on the grow 

It’s estimated that by 2019 the spend on robotics and related services will hit 135.4 billion US dollars. The types of technology we are talking about specifically for education will make up a very small fraction of this, infact the two fastest growing industries for robotics are healthcare and unsurprisingly process manufacturing. We feel it’s still fair to say technology will continue to play a pivotal role in all sectors, including education.

As accessibility specialists we’re passionate about technology and how it can help people with different health conditions and impairments to achieve their goals. For that reason we’re interested to see how robotics can help students with health conditions or impairments such as dementia, autism or mobility differences.

‘If you think you don’t know someone with a disability, think again’

Recent stats from shows that 1 in 4 students will experience mental health concerns during their education, stats from the British Dyslexia Association state that 10% of the population have dyslexia and there are 2 million people in the UK with visual impairments. '72, 000 children are missing out on their childhood due to long-term illness. That means in every eight classroom there is an empty desk' (source noisolation, 2017) This shows large numbers of people that could potentially have invaluable support from Artificial Intelligence.

So what about the future?

You might think we’re about to predict robots standing at the front of a classroom teaching or taking over the classroom altogether. The relationship between robotics and education might be a bit more complicated than that… An article from the BBC shows how students teaching a robot actually helps them to learn. Training the robots has also proven to be largely effective at training the students, and their patience is improved as they are learning by doing so. So, perhaps it could be time to embrace the future potential of Robots in Education.

If you'd like more information on how technology can support education contact us: Free phone 0800 269 545 or email 

How you can use a computer if you have MND

Motor Neurone Disease is also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease (after an American baseball player). It affects the muscles in your body causing them to be weak.  There is no known cure for this condition, but symptoms can be managed to help people to achieve the best possible quality of life. 

This blog has been created to coincide with MND Awareness Month which runs throughout June.

Professor Stephen Hawking

What is MND? 

According to the MND Association there are 5000 people with the condition in the UK. The causes aren’t really understood but it may be something to do with chemicals and structures in the motor nerves.

The effects include difficulty speaking and movement; eating and swallowing are also affected and eventually the muscles that assist breathing fail. There are different types of the condition.   

Professor Stephen Hawking who sadly passed away this year was one of the most famous people to have the condition.  Other people that have the condition include ex Scottish international rugby player Doddie Weir.

FAQs about MND and computing

These commonly asked questions about having MND illustrate some of the many ways of using a computer can help someone who has the condition.

Q: I sometimes find it hard to use the standard mouse. What can I do?

There are lots of different mouse alternatives available, including rollerballs and joysticks. Take a look at our factsheet about mouse alternatives to work out which one may be best for you. 

If you have good head movement, you will be able to use a head mouse.  

If you have issues with “clicking” the mouse button you can download some free software which means you don’t have to do any clicking whatsoever. Eye gaze technology is advancing at a pace now and the cost is coming down all of the time. 

You can also check My Computer My Way to see if changing the way the mouse pointer moves might help!

Q: Can I talk to my computer?

If your voice is clear then we’d advise trying out voice recognition. It’s built into all new Windows and Apple computers as well as most tablets and smartphones.

For more details have a look at our easy to understand step by step instructions on My Computer My Computer.

We’ve also written a factsheet about voice recognition that offers advice about various options.

Some times you might find that your voice changes throughout the day. We’d recommend that you have a couple of different voice profiles. So for example you might have a “Morning voice” profile and an “Afternoon voice” profile.

Q: Sometimes I have difficulty reaching all the keys on the keyboard. What can I do?

A lot of people like to use keyboards that don’t have the number pad on the right hand side. This means the keyboards are a lot smaller than normal ones. They are called “compact” keyboards.

A keyguard might also be useful. This will stop you from hitting two keys at once!  As the condition progresses it might be worth exploring other input options like switches.

There are lots of different keyboards available – take a look at our factsheet on keyboard alternatives to learn more about your options. 

Q: I've heard a lot about "smart-tech" devices. Would these help me in my home?

Amazon Echo DotWe are really keen on smart home devices especially such as Amazon Echo and Google Home devices.  These are voice controlled devices that can help you with tasks around the house. For example you can link your Amazon device up to your TV and you can change the channels on your TV screen by voice.  Want to turn lights on? you can use smart tech to help you out again.  Want to see who is at your door?

Your Amazon Echo or Google Home device can also connect to a smart door lock so you can let people in as and when you need to, without having to struggle to get to the front door.

We also like the fact that you can use Amazon Echo to make calls to other people who own Echo devices as well and you can use the Google Home as easily as you can use a landline phone. to make incoming and outgoing calls. 

Case study: Using Skype to help families keep in touch?

Jon called us on behalf of his brother Nick. Nick used to enjoy travelling and has made many friends across the world, but now finds it difficult to get out of his house. We chatted about technology such as Skype which would mean that he could stay in touch with his friends.

We also chatted about alternatives to the headset microphone which might be easier for Nick to use and identified some retailers that have a “try before you buy” policy.

We also arranged for one of our IT Can Help volunteers to come to Nick's house to check the current set up and help with installation of any new equipment.

More help from AbilityNet

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 

Our expert factsheets talk in detail about technology that might help you and can be downloaded for free. You may find our factsheets talking about voice recognition and keyboard alternatives useful.

My Computer My Way

Our free guide to all the accessibility features built into every computer, laptop, tablet and smartphone. We show you the adjustments that can make your time on the computer that bit easier.

Finalists announced for AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards!

The finalists have been announced for the AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards 2018 – an annual showcase for the amazing people who use digital technology to make the world a better place. 

Sponsored by BT, they are the only awards to highlight the wealth of charities, businesses and volunteers across the UK that use the power of technology to improve the other people’s lives.

This is the eighth year of the awards, which are organised by national digital inclusion charity AbilityNet, and entry was open to any business, charity, individual or public body in the UK. 

The AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards 2018 finalists are:
AbilityNet Accessibility Award

  • Be My Eyes
  • Facebook
  • GiveVision
  • Seeing AI
  • WaytoB

BT Connected Society Award 

•    Alcove
•    Always in Mind
•    Greengame
•    Rafiqi
•    Small Robot Company

BT Young Pioneer Award

•    Code Camp
•    Mind Moodz
•    Water Watcher

Comic Relief Tech4Good for Africa Award

•    Gather
•    Lynk
•    Unlocking Talent Through Technology

Community Impact Award

•    Digtial Voice
•    Kindergifts
•    Mind of My Own
•    Tap to the App
•    Relias

Digital Health Award

•    Apart of Me
•    Immersive Rehab
•    Moment Health
•    TapSOS

Digital Skills Award

•    CodeYourFuture
•    Generation Code
•    Nominet Digital Neighbourhood
•    Stretchlab

Digital Volunteer of the Year Award

•    Ann Crago
•    Anna Holland Smith
•    Graham Gunning
•    Richard Rankin

For more information about the finalists of the other award categories visit the website: 

People’s Award – have your say!

Voting is now open for in the People’s Award, which is chosen by the general public. 

You can read about each finalist and their entry on the AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards website and cast your vote by sending a tweet using the correct hashtag. 

Each entry has its own hashtag and voting closes at 5pm on Monday 09 July. 

For more details visit the People's Award page on the Tech4Good Awards website.

The Awards are organised by AbilityNet Head of Marketing and Communications, Mark Walker. He said:

“We are thrilled to announce this excellent range of finalists for the AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards 2018.

“Each finalist has truly used their passion for digital technology to change the lives of other people.

“On behalf of AbilityNet, I want to thank BT for once again generously agreeing to sponsor this year’s awards – without BT’s passionate support these awards would not be possible.

“We are now looking forward to the awards ceremony on 17 July at BT Centre, London, where we will celebrate these amazing people who use digital technology to make the world a better place for other people. 

“You can also have your say and vote for the People’s Award, which is chosen from the finalists by the general public. 

“To cast your vote and to get more details about the finalists visit our website now."


AbilityNet at Number 10 to promote inclusive design during London Tech Week

We're very proud to say Robin Christopherson and Mark Walker were at Downing Street yesterday (Thursday 14 June) for a Breakfast Briefing about assistive technology as part of London Tech Week.

The session at No. 10 included 20 people hosted by the Secretary of State for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Matt Hancock, Minister for Disabled People, Sarah Newton and No.10 Deputy Director of Policy, Natalie Black - with colleagues from Action on Hearing Loss, RNIB, Scope, Leonard Cheshire plus Microsoft and several start-ups, many of whom have featured in our Tech4Good Awards.

Mark Walker and Robin Chroistopherson outside number 10

Key themes match AbilityNet's goals

We'll post a longer report next week to review what we discussed but it was a very interesting hour, taking in several subjects of direct interest to AbilityNet, including:

Lots of positive listening on the government side and some interesting ideas about connecting with the DWP on specific actions... so watch this space!

Communication Aids

Many people have difficulty speaking or understanding what is being said, and this communication disability can be a huge barrier affecting every aspect of life.

2.2 million people are affected by communication problems include people with Aphasia, Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Dementia, Head Trauma, Learning Difficulties, Motor Neurone Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s And Stroke.