How computers can help people with tinnitus

This is Tinnitus Awareness Week. Often a poorly understood, tinnitus is a condition of the auditory system that creates noises which don’t have any external cause. It is often described as “ringing in the ears”, but can also be experienced as a buzzing noise. Over six million people in the UK have some form of tinnitus and anyone of any age can get the condition, from children right through to older people.

Headphones You might be surprised to learn that computers and other technology can help with tinnitus - including apps and special headphones.

We’d always suggest that you first have a chat with your medical experts to get their advice, but studies have shown that white noise can help reduce the signs of tinnitus. There are several free and low cost “white noise apps” which can help mask the annoying ringing or buzzing sounds.

There are also apps that play music which can in certain circumstances reduce the levels of tinnitus that you experience. One such app is called Tinnitracs - please note that the app recommends that you get a diagnosis from your doctor before using it.

Everyone seems to have a pair (or two) of headphones nowadays and, if you have tinnitus, you might want to consider headphones which work slightly differently to standard ones. For example you could try bone-conducting headphones, which do what they say on the tin as the sound is transmitted to your brain via your bones, rather than your ears. 

But a note of caution: one of the common dangers of listening to your music too loudly via headphones, is….you’ve guessed it, Tinnitus.

Tinnitus Week 2018 #tinnitusweek

Check out the video about how you can support Tinnitus Week 

More help from AbilityNet

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

AbilityNet tells Commons Select Committee how tech can help disabled people in the workplace

AbilityNet’s head of digital inclusion, Robin Christopherson MBE was amongst the experts called to give evidence to the House of Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee inquiry into Assistive Technology in the workplace. The inquiry is part of government’s aim to see one million more disabled people in employment in the next decade.

On 31 January, the Committee invited Robin, along with a representative from Microsoft to give evidence on the role assistive technology can play in improving disabled people's employment rates.

Parliament TV showed the session live and the recording is online now

How technology can help disabled people in the workplace

The Committee is asking three key questions:

  • What role can assistive technology play in removing barriers to work and helping disabled people stay in work?
  • How should the Government support the development of this technology, and are there any particular innovations it should look to support?
  • Is Access to Work the most effective means of providing access to assistive technology? Should other funding models be considered?

There were two panels: the first comprised assistive technology users and Access to Work assessors. The second included AbilityNet and Hector Minto of Microsoft, representing IT manufacturers. 

Both panels were played live on Parliament TV, with Robin and Hector Minto from Microsoft giving evidence from 10:24.

Mainstream tech solutions can help disabled people

Robin spoke about that fact that, as well as specialist assistive technologies, the latest mainstream technologies can now meet the needs of many disabled people often for free or at low cost. 

He also explained how emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence are bringing solutions such as voice recognition and image recognition that can be of huge value to many disabled people.

Robin also spoke about AbilityNet’s My Computer My Way website, which shows simple adjustments to computers, smartphones and other tech depending on ability, as well as ClearTalents (CT). ClearTalents is a job application service which shows potential employers easy adjustments they can make to give a great potential new employee the best working environment depending on their individual needs and circumstance.

Robin Christopherson with Tracey Johnson and Hector Minto at the House of Commons Select Committee on 31 January 2018

Speaking after the session Robin said:

“It was a huge honour to be able to give evidence and have the opportunity to contribute to this very important remit – namely to review and make recommendations to help improve the employment opportunities of disabled people in the UK through technology. With the right adjustment and often very basic support, disabled people can perform on a par with non-disabled people.

"It's important for individuals to be given a level playing field, but it's now recognised that having a diverse workforce is good for business - it makes for better products and services. If we can crack the challenge of equipping everyone to perform at their best, then that’s better for our workers of both today and tomorrow.”

Read AbilityNet's written submission

What do you think?


Three signs web accessibility will be big in 2018

computer network, multiple screensResearch by students at Stanford University shows a bigger focus on web accessibility for businesses and developers in 2017, with the trend set to continue exponentially into 2018. The students drew their conclusion after looking at the popularity of accessibility keywords around web accessibility on social media, as well as the frequency of accessibility events and the number of accessibility Github repos.  Here’s why accessibility looks to be a big deal in 2018.

1. Web developers have an increased focus on accessibility

GitHub's (software development platform) digital directories or ‘repos’ created for the term a11y (meaning web accessibility) rose from about 260 in 2016 to around 370 in 2017. Developer engagement and participation in accessibility shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

2. Big companies are more focused on accessibility

The accessibility-themed Twitter accounts of Google and Facebook: @googleaccess and @fbaccess posted more than ever before in 2017. In particular @googleaccess more than quadrupled its output from around 50 tweets in 2016, to around 280 Tweets last year.

3. More than 26,000 accessibility events took place around the world in 2017!

The researchers looked at Eventbrite for events matching the terms ‘visually impaired’ and ‘screen reader’ and found the number of these events had risen stratospherically. In total, there were more than 26,000 accessibility events on the site for 2017.

The researchers used the Github API to give these results and noted that this might not give the full picture, but should offer a view on trends.

More about the Stanford research

Twenty Years of Tech - and AbilityNet

I’m very proud to have been with AbilityNet since the very start. Today marks our 20th birthday - and it’s worth taking a look at just how far we’ve come…

Two decades of changing lives through tech

Whichever way you look at it the past 20 years have been a blast! When AbilityNet was first founded in 1998, the internet was still young and fresh, computer speeds were measured in megahertz, mobile phones weren’t nearly so mobile (and definitely weren’t so smart) and the terrifying Y2K digital-apocalypse loomed large.

Toyota's driverless car made for Google, image credit Steve Jurvetson

Photo: Toyota's driverless car made for Google  |  Image credit: Steve Jurvetson

Today, the unstoppable rise of the smartphone has created a tsunami of smart gadgets and wearables, the internet is everywhere (and in everything from your watch to your washing machine) and self-driving cars and trucks are being road-tested on the streets of cities across Europe, the US and around the world.

Through all these changes, one thing hasn’t altered; AbilityNet has remained at the very cutting-edge, using our expertise to help people with disabilities.

Celebrating the power of tech

In these two decades, the technology has evolved in eye-opening ways but its potential to help overcome impairments has existed from the very start. In education, at home and in the workplace we’ve continued changing lives through the power of technology - helping many millions of people across countless countries reach their full potential.

Robin Christopherson and his dog Archie

Photo: Robin Christopherson and his dog Archie  |  Image credit: AbilityNet 

Without tech and its awesome ability to include everyone in this digital world, I wouldn’t be Head of Digital Inclusion for such an excellent organisation as AbilityNet - and been able to play a small part in enabling others to also achieve their ambitions over these many years.

I know what you’re thinking; of course AbilityNet wouldn’t exist without tech.

So I need to be really clear; without the power of tech to include everyone I wouldn’t be in work at all.

I and millions of others wouldn’t stand a chance. But tech has given us so much more than an equal chance at a career – it’s given us all those things that YOU use tech for every day.

I may need to tweak my computer and smartphone to do the things you take for branted, but that’s where AbilityNet comes in.

More about our birthday 

Bank robbers, future tech and the importance of inclusive design

On Tuesday I spoke at the excellent Beyond Tellerrand conference in Munich, Germany. I spoke about being lucky in 2018, bank robbers, the future of tech and the importance of inclusive design.

My talk was called 'From AI to robots, from apps to wearables - let's design for everyone, ok?' It covered a broad range of technology and how important it is to ensure that the tech of tomorrow is inclusive. If we get the design right it can be used by everyone, regardless of disability, impairment or environment.

The organisers have been swift in getting the video up online and I'd love for you to watch it.

From AI to robots, from apps to wearables – let’s design for everyone, OK? - Robin Christopherson - btconfMUC2018 from beyond tellerrand on Vimeo.

Bank robbers and lemonade

So where do luck and bank robbers fit in? Well you’ll just have to watch it for the full story (hot tip - it's right at the beginning) but one significant message I'd like people to take away is that, in large part, we make our own luck. Whether it’s being caught in the crossfire in a bank robbery, or something as every day (but still exasperating) as dropping your phone, how we choose to view that event can make all the difference to our day, our week, our lives.

When it comes to people with disabilities, you’ll find that they are often the most grateful and positive people you’d be lucky to meet. When life serves you lemons, often the best approach is to make lemonade.

Embrace inclusive design and give people a fighting chance to have a truly lucky 2018

One word that used to be used for describing people with a disability was ‘handicapped’. I actually quite like this term. The better the racehorse, the bigger the handicap (additional weight added to slow them down and level the field) and the better the golfer, the greater the number of shots added to his or her score at the start of a round.

sticks of celery

The thing is that no matter how good a golfer you are, if instead of your set of golf clubs you’re given a stick of celery instead, then even Tiger Woods wouldn’t make it past the first hole. There are some handicaps you just can’t get over however positive your outlook is.

The same is true of inaccessible design.

If you have a disability and a website, app or piece of software that you need to use for work, education or pleasure is not inclusive, then you’re stuck. You’re out of luck. Some things are out of our control.

If, however, you’re a designer or developer working on websites, apps or even robots or AI, then it’s completely within your power to make them inclusive and to help build a future for everyone.

Related links

How contact lens computers could help those who are partially sighted see the future more clearly

It’s predicted that, by 2021, contact lens computers will be a reality. A recent patent and detailed tech-spec for such a device by Sony (see video below) shows how every element of a computer  – from a screen to a battery and even a camera – can be condensed down to fit in a contact lens. Such tech could be a real eye-opener for people with disabilities.

Sony has submitted a patent (including a detailed technical specification) for a ‘contact lens computer’. It fits over the eye and contains everything that you need for a fully-functional computer, as well as wi-fi, storage, a built-in camera and even a piezo-electrically-charged battery that happily keeps the miniscule micro-components powered simply by your natural eye-movements. The company predicts that it will be available as early as 2021.


Seeing the future clearly with contact lens computers

With a computer screen nestled on your eyeball and its image able to occupy your entire field of vision, the applications for both augmented reality and virtual reality are obvious. You can work and play wherever you are – using applications that either layer important information on top of the real world or else immerse you in another world of your choosing -  and without the need for any devices or power supply. For those with a vision impairment, however, this ability to see a virtual screen that is effectively so enormous as to fill what field of view you do have, has obvious benefits.

While larger and larger screens are available, for someone who is partially sighted, the further away those outer edges of monitor are, the harder they are to see. And there is also the obvious question of the cost for such massive monitors. This virtual view of a screen gets around those issues and affords the user much easier access to their computer and the internet.

How a contact lens computer works

Most computer monitors comprise a liquid crystal display (LCD) panel that contains millions of pixels that can change colour or block light altogether. Then there’s a backlight panel that shines through to light up each pixel so we can see the colours shine.

As we see in this quick DIY video on how to make a see-through screen, if we dismantle our monitor and take away that back panel then what we get is a transparent display through which we can see the world – as well as the information or images on our computer screen. If the world behind is a white wall, say, then it might look a little like a normal monitor.

In newer, organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays that comprise pixels which produce their own light, the process is even easier. Here there is no back panel so all you need to do is remove the back of your monitor.

Making minute contact lens computers

Having a transparent display is a crucial part of making the concept of a contact lens-sized computer a reality. Obviously, there’s much more to a computer than simply the screen, but we are seeing a marked reduction in size of each and every element of a computer. We see those in the field taking complex circuit boards and several components such as memory and CPU etc and creating a minute ‘system on a chip’ and taking bulky battery and camera technology and making squeezin them into ever-thinner smartphones.

The ultimate head-mounted computer

Many tech companies are producing smart glasses that give you a similar ‘heads-up display’ (Vuzix glasses pictured below) . Here are the top five available on Amazon today, but having both a display that is in front of you wherever you look combined with a camera that is always looking where you are, will make these bulky unappealing gadgets of today look hopelessly out-of-date.

vuzix smart glasses

Such smart glasses with head-mounted cameras have many disability-specific applications - from using AI to read text or identify what objects a blind person is looking at, to highlighting (with a hi-vis outline) such objects to assist those with partial vision, to layering helpful info or icons on top of what someone with a learning difficulty sees when performing everyday tasks. Now these capabilities will be available with less inconvenience and, we hope, expense.

Gazing into the future

In a few short years there will no longer be people walking around looking down at mobile phones, oblivious to their surroundings, blundering into people, lamposts or on-coming traffic. People will instead be empty-handed and gazing blankly into the middle-distance. Whether they will see the wisdom of standing still while they view a screen that potentially takes up their whole field of vision… we’ll just have to wait and see.


How Image Recognition and AI is Transforming the Lives of Blind People

Microsoft Seeing AI - the best ever app for blind people just got even better


For advice and news on disability and tech, see


3 ways students can reduce stress and create better essays

Now the festivities are over it's time for us all to start thinking about the year ahead. For most students it's time to get to work. Whether you've got a thesis, dissertation or a simple report to write, these student apps will help to maximise productivity, reduce procrastination and even improve the eloquence of your writing.

1  Zotero 

This is particularly good for science students who need to reference, but good for anyone writing essays and thesis. Use it to collect, organise, speedily cite, and share your research sources. 

Get Zoreto here

See this useful short video guide for a Zoreto demo

student looking relaxed writing in cafe with hot drink

 2 Dragon Dictation

Dragon Dictate is a voice recognition app that listens to you speaking and automatically converts those words into digital written text. Obviously useful for essays, but you could also try it for capturing notes and ideas. If you have trouble getting your words down and prefer to speak, or are dyslexic or have trouble writing for physical reasons, this could ease the pressure. By allowing users to dictate a stream of thoughts and words, it takes the pressure off students who feel it’s difficult to put words on the page while thinking. 

Get Dragon Dictate for iOS, here

There’s a super quick demo of Dragon Dictation here

3  Evernote

A popular organisational tool, where you can keep different notes and subjects in order and in separate sections and add and subtract from them when you wish, syncing across your devices. Handily it’s also an audio recorder for lecturers or verbal notes and ideas. You can share notes with course mates too, but this might involve a charge. One extra really cool feature - scan and search - means that if you take pics of whiteboard content or handouts, you can search them using any of the words in the image, because Evernote recognises content within images. In addition, you can write or draw on those PDFs on screen. Try Trello too if you want a project management board where you can see your projects’ workflow really easily and clearly. 

Get Evernote here

Find out more about how Evernote could help you in this video

How tech can help disabled people: AbilityNet's top 10 blogs of 2017

AbilityNet's website saw more traffic than ever before in 2017. Here are the top 10 most viewed articles published last year. 

man wearing VR glasses in a mountain scene simulation

1 Virtual reality 
From trying out-of-reach experiences to aiding muscle recovery, we looked at 8 ways virtual reality could enhance the lives of disabled people 

2 iPad / iPhone settings and tremors
How the latest version of the software that drives iPads and iPhone (iOS10) offers significant improvements for people with tremors due to conditions such as Parkinsons, Cerebral Palsy or old age

3 Government and disability
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)'s Disability report says government has failed to support disabled people over the last 20 years. 

4 Windows 10 Fall Creator
The new accessibility features which came with Microsoft Windows Fall Creator update

5 AI and blind people
The artificial intelligence app which helps blind people hear the world

6 Dementia and digital design webinar 
Advice for developers on creating online services which are dementia friendly 

7 Robin's MBE
Our tech guru Robin Christopherson picks up a well deserved MBE for services to digital inclusion

8 BBC producer on life with dyslexia
Ed Booth opened up about his life, from struggles with dyslexia to writing top BBC programmes

9 Dementia-friendly websites
An AbilityNet accessibility consultant's top 6 tips for a dementia-friendly website

10 Microsoft's SEEING AI app
Robin, who is blind, blogs about the updates to Seeing AI. He was excited that it can now read colours and handwriting

What else was popular?


How Image Recognition and AI is Transforming the Lives of Blind People

A demo of the Orcam MyEye 2.0 was one of the highlights at the AbilityNet/RNIB TechShare Pro event in November. This small device, an update to the MyEye released in 2013, clips onto any pair of glasses and provides discrete audio feedback about the world around the wearer. It uses state-of-the-art image recognition to read signs and documents as well as recognise people and does not require internet connection. It's just one of many apps and devices that are using the power of artificial intelligence (AI) to transform the lives of people who are blind or have sight loss.

the new Orcam MyEye clips onto a standard pair of glasses and can recognises every day products

Last week, we took a look Microsoft’s updated free app Seeing AI and its amazing new features for people who are blind or have sight loss, including colour recognition and handwriting recognition. The app proved popular with AbilityNet’s head of digital inclusion, Robin Christopherson. 

And it's not the only innovation that is helping blind people. In the last few years we’ve seen popular and loved apps such as TapTapSee powered by image recognition. This app allows users to take a photo and the details of what and who is in the photo are then spoken to the user. Similarly, Aipoly Vision app gives real time image recognition using Deep Learning. 

New smaller Orcam MyEye

Version 2.0 of the MyEye can clip onto a standard pair of glassesAt TechShare Pro, Orcam, the makers of AI vision tech MyEye who've recently launched MyEye 2.0, gave delegates an advance look at the updated tech before launch (6 December). The MyEye 2.0 consists of a very small camera and microphone attached to a pair of glasses linked to a smaller processor that can be clipped onto the body. A user can point to text, for example on a menu or notice board, and will hear a computerised voice read out the information. The device can also recognise faces, money and other objects.

Presenting the technology, Leon Paull, Orcam’s international business development manager, said: “You can teach it to identify certain items and it will find those in a supermarket. It’s ability to find products has been enhanced. The device is being used all around world and the new version understands multiple languages and can read barcodes and has colour recognition." 

He used simple hand gestures to work the technology, such as pointing a finger towards a page to have the text on the page read discreetly into his ear. With a wave of his hand, the system then stopped reading out text. He looked at his wrist to mime that he wanted to know the time, and MyEye 2.0 spoke the time. 

The MyEye 2.0 builds on the previous model for blind people, offering a more discreet and portable device with no wires. It currently costs around £3,000, but the creators say they are hoping funders will come forward so the devices can be provided at a cheaper cost or for free. 

Useful links

Five top tips for building accessible conversational interfaces

Leonie Watson of WC3 The Amazon Echo and Google Home top of many Christmas lists this year. Both of these amazing devices can use our verbal instructions to play music, turn our lights on and off, exchange the basics of a short conversation with us, and of course, tell us the weather. Amongst the highlights of our TechShare pro conference in November was a talk by Leonie Watson - who offered her five top tips on creating accessible conversations with our machines.

Legends of talking machines

“There are reports that as far back 1000 years ago people were thinking about the concept artificial speech,” says Watson, director of developer communications for the Paciello Group, a member of the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) Advisory Board, and co-chair of the W3C Web Platform Working Group.

Legends of talking “machines” go 1000 years back to Pope Sylvester II (950–1003 AD), the first French Pope who supposedly created a very basic first dialog system including components of speech recognition, understanding, generation, and synthesis - according to the essay Gerbert, the Teacher by Oscar G. Darlington in The American Historical Review.

Steve Jobs introduces the first talking Apple Mac

Fast forward to the 1980s, when the first text-to-speech synthesiser by DECtalk was introduced. 1984 also saw Steve Jobs demonstrate the Apple Mac’s talking capabilities for the first time with Apple MacInTalk. See the video below from 3 minutes 20.

"There’s been some good marketing around such technology", said Watson, who has sight loss. "But I've found that talking to tech has been a laborious process - with a person having to speak very, very clearly and with specific phrases for machines to understand. Even then, the interaction has ended up bearing little resemblance to an actual conversation", said Watson.


“The thing that really changed that was Siri in 2011. For first time we could have something that felt a lot more like a conversation with technology. In 2014 the Windows Cortana launch followed, giving us another digital assistant that would talk back to us.”

“The same year, with the Amazon Echo, we started to see digital assistants be able to do practical things around the house, but we still needed very structured language and to ask very carefully phrased demands to get it to do things," explained Watson. "A further leap forward came in 2015 with Google making it’s technology more context aware. Meaning, for example, if a song was playing, you could ask your Google device ‘where’s this artist from? Or what’s his real name?” without having to specifically state who you were talking about.”

How to build accessible conversational interfaces

Watson laid out five ways that developers could make interactions with machines as clear as possible for a wide-range of people.

1 Keep machine language simple

  • Think about the context of how people might be using the device. They might be driving or cooking and need short, simple interactions.
  • Offer choices but not too many choices.
  • Suggest obvious pointers to useful information.

2 Avoid idioms and colloquialisms

  • ie, terms like “it’s raining cats and dogs” or “coffee to go” might only be understood by certain audiences and so lack inclusivity.

Amazon echo3 Avoid dead-ends in conversation

  • Give the users cues around what to say or ask next to get what they need.

4 Use familiar, natural language.

  • Ie for time, say ‘three thirty in the morning’ for a UK or US audience. Don’t say ‘zero, three, three zero a.m’.

5 Provide a comparable experience

  • Users of such technology will generally require speech and hearing to talk to machines.
  • For those with hearing loss, conversational transcripts could be posted on screen.
  • For those without speech, the only obvious option at the moment is using simulated speech, like Stephen Hawking does, for example.

Learn more