Google asks users to improve Maps feature with accessibility info

Google is asking the public - in particular its ‘local guides’ - to add accessibility information to Google Maps. It's hoping that visitors to restaurants, theatres, offices and lots of other venues, will add info on whether entrances, toilets and spaces are suitable for wheelchair users.

The company is encouraging its guides, and anyone else interested in improving accessibility, to hold group meet-ups with each other to populate Google Maps with such info.

Last month, AbilityNet accessibility consultant Guerman Botten, attended a Local Guides event hosted by Google to find out more and was inspired to see the initiative taking off.

Not just wheelchair accessibility 

“The latest update to Google Maps allows people to add information to venue detail. I’ve reviewed lots of places. You can say stuff about whether it’s noisy, busy, expensive or family-friendly, for example, and now we’re being encouraged to add information on wheelchair accessibility."

He added: “There’s nothing to stop people adding detail on whether a place has braille menus, for example, or audio guides for people with vision loss. We could also add other detail that's useful to people with a range of disabilities too."

There’ve been several hundred meets over the last few weeks focused on adding accessibility information to Google Maps including events in Gujarat, India, Tomsk, Russia, Vancouver, Canada, and Batticloa, Sri Lanka.

Check out to see if a meet-up is being hosted near you, or add one in if you'd like to host one yourself. You can share your discoveries of accessible places on Twitter and social media using the hashtags #LocalGuides and #a11y.

How to add detail about wheelchair accessibility on Google Maps

• Go to “Your contributions” on your phone (click on the three horizontal verticle lines, normally in the top left hand corner of maps) 
• Tap “Answer questions about a place” or "uncover missing info" under 'improve the map near you' (Don’t see it? Make sure Location History is turned on.)
• Answer as many accessibility questions as you can (use this guide for reference).
• You may see other questions as well, until you move on to the next place.
• If you have an Android device, you can find places near you that are missing this info and edit these attributes by checking the facts.

See this article on Google Guides Connect for more information

Sci-fi Fun Becomes Serious Functionality – Making Home Automation Accessible Through AI

Robin Christopherson"It's just like being on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise... and if all you have is your voice - for example I'm thinking of my sister here who is both blind and has very advanced Multiple Sclerosis - then sci-fi fun becomes serious functionality..." says Robin Christopherson MBE, the Head of Digital Inclusion at AbilityNet.

He made the comments after recently discovering how bringing together home automation devices with new ambient computing technology, like Alexa, has the power to dramatically improve accessibility and improve the lives of disabled people.

Are you keeping up?

The tech industry has been working towards a future where everything is smarter including your phone, TV and home. Things that seemed to belong in sci-fi a few years ago are suddenly becoming a reality, so it's important to keep up.

These tech advancements are good news for everyone, but its turning out to be life-changing for people with disabilities - if only they could access them!

It's a huge shame that many of the apps used to set-up and control home automation just aren't accessible to people with disabilities. Just a few small tweaks by developers could have made a huge difference.

Robin recently tested a couple of home automation products (Wi-Fi Plug by Wasserstein and The Smart Home LED Lightbulb) and neither of them were accessible to him as a blind VoiceOver user until he combined them with Alexa.

Instantly accessible, instantly empowered

New ambient computing products like Alexa, which is used to control the Amazon Echo Dot, and others such as Google Home and the Apple Home Pod (due to be released in December this year) allow people to use their voice to control things in their home.

Amazon echo dot

Need to lock the door? "Alexa lock the door". Turn on that light? "Alexa turn on the light". They have made these smart home automation devices instantly accessible.

Now instead of having to fiddle with inaccessible apps or rely on friends or family to set things up, people with disabilities just plug them in and connect via their ambient computer, using voice control. It's really very simple and straightforward.

Imagine until now having to rely on other people for everything. With the cost of this technology falling home automation has the potential to empower disabled people, giving them back their dignity and allowing them to look after themselves on their own terms. If we go back to the earlier Star Trek reference - they can be the captain of their own ship.

Working together to make inclusive apps

It's important that tech developers and designers work together and make sure new home automation tech is accessible to all people and that industry experts work with different groups of disabled people to spot these new opportunities and potential pitfalls.

TechShare Pro - AI, UX and the future of accessibility

TechShare Pro is an upcoming conference organised by AbilityNet in partnership with RNIB wher we will be bringing together industry experts to explore inclusive design. It will give people the chance to network with other like-minded people, passionate about making a difference to people's lives through accessibility.

To find out more about TechShare Pro 2017 and to book your tickets click here.

Guardian urges disabled shoppers to call out inaccessible shopping sites

Online shops who want to benefit from the £200 billion purple pound each year are being further urged to make their websites fully accessible to disabled customers. 

online shopping

The Guardian newspaper is currently asking Britain’s 12 million disabled people, who have a perceived spending power of at least £200 billion, known as the 'purple pound' to reveal and share which clothes websites are falling short of expectations.

The Guardian call out follows a report by the Extra Costs Commission last year, led by pan-disability charity Scope, which highlighted its research showing that 49 per cent of disabled people feel they only have some of the information needed or wanted when shopping on or off-line.

Inclusive fashion

The charity We Are Purple, which connects businesses and disabled people, also launched their Help Me Spend My Money campaign over the summer, encouraging businesses to offer an inclusive experience for all shoppers.

It is a legal requirement in the UK for public-facing websites to be accessible to disabled customers. This includes sites being created to interact with screen-readers for blind people, and to interact with customers who can only use a keyboard, rather than a mouse.

The Guardian writes:

“Where designers have supported the move towards diverse casting and even showcased disability models, many disabled consumers cannot access these trends due to poor shop accessibility. Retailers are commonly unaware of the needs of disabled customers…”

The paper also hopefully points out that Edward Enninful, the new editor of British Vogue, has said he wants the fashion industry to be more inclusive.

In the piece, the newspaper's readers are encouraged to fill in a form explaining their stories and experience to inform Guardian articles and coverage on this subject.

Complaining about inaccessible shopping sites

Almost one in five people has a disability. In last year’s report, the Extra Costs Commission, said: “Only by sharing information about our needs and expectations as shoppers, by complaining and speaking up when dissatisfied and by being more demanding as consumers, will companies have the market data to serve us better and to help reduce the cost of essential goods and services."

Joe Chidzik, senior accessibility consultant at AbilityNet works with businesses such as those in the fashion sector to ensure their websites meet legally accessibility requirements.

Commenting on the Guardian call out, he says:

“Shopping websites exhibit some particular types of issues. As transactional website, it is important for people to be able to not only add items to their basket, but also know that they have done so, and then be able to manage their basket eg, update amounts, remove items and add items."

"With shopping websites, more even than other sites, it is easy for users to ‘vote with their feet’. If a site is inaccessible, chances are that a more accessible site is a few clicks away. The additional difficulties that some disabled people encounter navigating physical shops, mean online shopping has the potential to be a life saver for some, but it must be accessible!"

Any type of e-commerce website is a prime method of tapping into the purple pound; the disposable income of disabled people is 100s of billions of pounds. A more accessible website leads directly to more customer conversions.

Care about accessibility?

Would you like to know more about creating an accessible website? Check our blogs below or find out more about our accessibility services.





Building Better Bots: Can Next Gen Tech Make the World a Better Place?

Robin Christopherson MBE is a founding member of AbilityNetEvery day brings news of amazing new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, robotics and automation. It's the age of ambient computing and everyone’s world is about to change. In the build up to an AbilityNet event Brighton Digital Festival, Robin Christopherson, Head of Digital Inclusion at UK tech charity AbilityNet, asks whether the next generation of tech will make life better for disabled people.

A version of this post first appeared on the blog of Equal Experts, who are sponsoring Building Better Bots in Brighton.

We’re seeing a revolution in the power and capabilities of mainstream technology. Hardware costs are falling, software is becoming more intelligent, our phones, cars and washing machines have more and more computing power. We’ve moved way beyond the mobile revolution into the age of ‘ambient computing'.

Every day brings new stories about AI, bots and robots - from BBC stories about faking Obama’s mouth movements to DeepMind beating humans at Go and Honda using IBM Watson for its F1 IOT systems these are stories that pop up across everyone's news feeds.

What's a bot?

In this fast moving space the term Bot is used in various ways but in this case I'm referring to those digital tools or services that use these new capabilities – a piece of software that draws on the power of AI and the internet of things to create new functionality. Bots are linked to this next generation of tech in the way that Apps are now synonymous with mobile.

C The Signs uses advanced algorithms to help early diagnosis of cancerChatbots are increasingly common on websites, whether offering pre-qualification for insurance products or simply serving as glorified FAQs. We've had Siri for several years but I’ve been living with Alexa and my Amazon Echo Dot for almost a year and by my definition the Alexa skills I podcast about are also Bots

Services such as C The Signs uses a form of AI to help early diagnosis of cancer, we have apps and bots that use image recognition to help people with disabilities and the tech giants are competing to sell us the Bots that will control our homes. 

The world isn’t short of Bots, or people talking about AI, but why is it of interest to AbilityNet?

Using tech to make the world a better place

AbilityNet is a charity that helps disabled people use tech to achieve their goals at home, at work and in education – any disability, any age, any digital technology.

We started life in the 1990s, helping people like Prof Stephen Hawking use cutting edge tech such as voice recognition. Twenty years ago we spent most of our time talking about highly specialist and often very expensive technologies, that had to be carefully customised. These days we very often recommend mainstream technologies, and they’re usually built into the phone or PC in front of you. 

There are an estimated 12 million disabled people in the UK and the great lesson is that one size doesn’t fit all – there isn’t one app for blind people, or a piece of software that solves every problem for people with dyslexia. Every person has different needs, depending on the obstacles they face and the tasks they’re trying to complete.

So what does this next generation of technology offer disabled people?

A new kind of interface

Well the best place for me to start is voice controlled interfaces.

I am completely blind and even though I have learned touch typing I use the power of my voice everyday, from dictating emails and reports to asking Siri or Alexa to help with daily tasks such as checking train timetables. The speed and accuracy of the voice interface has improved at an incredible pace in recent years, it no longer needs extensive training and is built into phones, TVs and 101 other interfaces.

Or how about autonomous cars. Like most people who are blind or have physical disabilities I can’t wait to tap my phone and jump into a car whenever I fancy - free to go wherever I please.

So much potential...

Before I get carried away we need to sound a warning signal about the way that tech is built and the barriers we are likely to face in achieving this dream.

I’ve been involved in digital tech for over 20 years and as each wave of tech comes along we see almost as many barriers as we do opportunities. Whether that is websites that are not accessible, apps that can’t be used by disabled people or services that can’t be used by people with particular impairments, I know from bitter personal experience that it doesn’t happen by accident.

The good news is that we work with clients such as Barclays Bank, who are embracing inclusive design and building accessibility into every digital product and service. They recognise the moral case for better design but they also embrace it for commercial reasons – what will you do if millions of people with dyslexia prefer someone else’s Bot because they've designed it better than yours?

It's about people, not technology

But the people building the future bots need to work to agreed standards – the next version of the globally agreed Web Consortium Accessibility Guidelines, known as WCAG, will encompass mobile standards. But will they be relevant in the age of AI? How will we test a Bot – in all its various forms - for accessibility?

Will the law keep pace with changes in technology?More widely still, there are ethical and legal issues relating to disability. When will it be legal for a blind person to travel unaccompanied in an autonomous car? What about someone with a learning disability? At what level of impairment will the solo traveller be kept off the roads? Hopefully (and ethically) the answer will be “Never”

Similarly, we’re all worried about Bots taking our jobs, but how many employers will level the recruitment playing field for people with disabilities, when at the same time they may be using Bots to outstrip even their able-bodied counterparts? What will the law say when you may be able to choose between an exceptionally brainy Bot and a human for your next hire?

Our event in Brighton Digital Festival, sponsored by Equal Experts, is a chance to explore these questions. We want to engage with the humans who are building bots as well as some of the people who can benefit from them.

More information

Tech4Good Awards: Winners help disabled students skill up in emerging digital fabrication job market

As a new academic year starts, a new growing season begins and the seeds of the future are being planted at FabFarm! N Ireland. Could a digital aquaponics unit, run by young people with special educational needs, boost employment chances for a marginalised section of society?

The job market can be tough for graduates, and for those with a disability the chances of securing a job are even further reduced. According to the charity Scope, disabled people are twice as likely to be unemployed than non-disabled people. 


But Fabfarm!, set up at Ardnashee School & College by creative media hub The Nerve Centre, is trying to challenge this. It gained recognition over the summer, collecting the AbilityNet Tech4Good Digital Skills award for its fantastic work in equipping young disabled students for the digital marketplace.

The farm, which is run as a commercial operation, with fresh produce sold to local businesses, is equipped with 3D printers used by students to create modular parts for the project and other items for the business.

Digital inclusion and STEM

Students also use the latest open source software such as Inkscape, Google Sketchup and Cura and, importantly, gain an accredited training certificate in Digital Fabrication & Design in the process. Digital Fabrication technologies, like 3D printing, are rapidly impacting upon the employment market but accredited training is still relatively rare.

“We are innovating here in Northern Ireland with something that has not been done anywhere before," says Donna Cartin, vice principle of Ardnashee School & College. The combination of technology, STEM and social enterprise is powerful in unlocking key areas of learning for young people and its application to special educational needs learners is particularly powerful and socially driven.” 

She continued: “We feel that inclusion should be at the heart oftechnological development and our learners should have the earliest opportunity to engage with new and emerging tech.”

Inspired by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s work in digital aquaponics and by digital aquaponics farms in the states and elsewhere, the team is developing its own model of creating sustainable food, while offering training skills to an underserved group. In the future there is potential for paid employment for FabFarm! graduates and expansion of the model to other schools."

Fabfarm collect the Digital Skills Award at Tech4Good 2017

Tech4Good Awards boost

The award means a lot to the project, which has just started the second year of its three year pilot. “The platform the award has given us has been fantastic,” says John Peto, director of education at the Nerve Centre.

“We want to share the work and see FabFarms growing beyond Derry and Ireland. The award can only help us to achieve that. It’s also been brilliant for the young people to achieve the recognition for what they do at such a high level. We think it can lead all of us on to bigger and better things.”

See the full list of AbilityNet Tech4Good Award winners 2017 here.

Scope Launches Work With Me Campaign

I'm 45 and have worked almost ever since I left university 22 years ago, and I think this is quite an achievement considering I have a moderate disability. I enjoy work because it helps me to have a great social life and I like the people I work with.  But for lots of people with a disability getting or staying in work is a real difficulty.

Scope is launching the Work With Me campaign today to try and try and change attitudes of employers and job seekers too.  I have quite a number of friends who have disabilities who are my age but have NEVER....NEVER worked.  I even know someone who has two degrees who has really struggled to find employment.

SCOPE has launched a campaign called Work With Me

How can technology help disabled people find work?

Regular readers of our blogs will be aware that there is technology out there that can help people succeed at their work.  Last week I was talking to some job seekers who seemed to think that they could never get work because they had a mental health issue.  I tried to explain to them that having a disability shouldn't actually stop you from being a real asset to an employer, but I could see that they weren't that convinced.  For me it has never been about earning money but I get a real sense of achievement too from helping people.

Getting your foot in the door of employment is really difficult.  I found that when I was first looking for work but I kept myself busy with volunteering so I could show a potential employer what I was capable of. Once you get your first job things can often be quite difficult at first. If you feel that you need any changes to be made at work, or further support we'd certainly advise you to fill out a Clear Talents profile and this could start a discussion between you and your employer so that they can help you make the most of your career.

We definitely support the work that Scope is doing to help end the awkwardness of employing disabled people.

How can AbilityNet help?

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

  • 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.

Apple turns inclusivity up to 11: iPhone X, iOS 11 and accessibility

All the amps on Spinal Tap can be turned up to 11

Last week I wrote about Apple’s mission to remove physical buttons from the iPhone and the many options we have in a buttonless future. Now we've seen the launch of the new IOS11 and the iPhone X - so let's look at the accessibility benefits this new combination could offer…

Apple turns inclusivity up to 11

I’ve written in previous posts about the excellent and comprehensive accessibility features already present in Apple's iDevices - including a recent article on using accessibility settings to get more out of your device, from longer battery life to better productivity.

Anyone who remembers the cult movie This is Spinal Tap will appreciate the reference to turning things up to 11 - and that isn’t an exaggeration for what Apple has done in terms of new accessibility settings and features within iOS 11, which it released this week.

Reading the excellent ebook iOS 11 Without the Eye by the ambassador of accessibility himself Jonathan Mosen is my top tip for finding out about all the accessibility additions in the new operating system. It has powerful productivity pointers as well as a comprehensive review of those adjustments that can make our smartphone more accommodating to our needs, regardless of impairment or environment.

Text resizing – now just one swipe away

New to iOS 11, one accessibility feature that should prove invaluable to many users is the ability to now readily access the text resizing widget from within Control Centre. Jonathan explains how to add this feature (and many others) to your Control Centre which is then easily accessed, as usual, with a swipe up from the bottom of the screen.

As outlined in my last post, if you’re lucky enough to get your hands on an iPhone X then swiping up the screen is actually now the new way to close an app (like clicking the Home button) so in this case the Control Panel is opened by swiping only half way up the screen instead.

Confusing? Perhaps briefly but if you’d prefer another method then that same post of mine also explained how to use an on-screen menu instead.

screen shot from Robin's iPhone showing the new style control centre

New screen recording options

As you see from the screenshot above I also have the new screen recording widget (the concentric circles icon) added to Control Centre on my phone. 

Of course, this feature has many more mainstream applications (such as creating tutorial videos on how to use an app, website or game), but as a blind person I plan to use this feature to record myself using an app with the screen-reading function (called VoiceOver) running to show a developer where things are not correctly spoken. The video that is captured would include the screen activity, the speech from VoiceOver and your own comments. VoiceOver also puts a black outline around spoken items so the developer could see exactly what is proving problematic.

Lock yourself into a leaner, meaner online experience

There are numerous new features in iOS 11 that could be considered accessibility features. Some are found in the Accessibility settings and others elsewhere. And anyone who reads my articles regularly knows that I feel it’s unhelpful to distinguish between features meant specifically to address disability, dyslexia or impairment etc and those that happen to be found in other areas of the Settings app than the Accessibility section. They are far too numerous to mention here (check out Jonathon’s book or other helpful resources such as the ever-comprehensive website but I will mention just one more before closing.

iOS 11 now allows us to lock our Safari web browsing experience into the permanently cleaner and less cluttered view that is Reader Mode.

Reader Mode has been available for a long time (simply tap the Reader button at the top of your browser to get a version of the page without many of the ads, social sharing links and other detritus that litters the average web page) but now it’s possible to have Safari intelligently apply Reader Mode to all pages that you visit – only allowing the more complex view to appear when the website is more dynamic. 

Reader Mode is perfect for information sites such as news sites like the BBC, but less so for interactive sites such as the online shopping giants of Amazon or eBay. Reader Mode can also be turned on on a site by site basis so you can choose which sites to lock into this lovely, lean viewing experience.

More resources:

5 apps to help uni students with disabilities including autism, dyslexia and anxiety

In the second part of our student apps blog series for uni starters, AbilityNet's DSA (Disabled Student Allowance) assessors Abbie Osborne and Adam Tweed give their top app ideas for disabled students. The first part, last week, looked at apps for focus and motivation. This time we look at some of the top apps to support students who are autistic, who have dyslexia and students who need help with processing and organisation. 

AbilityNet's DSA assessors work with disabled students and those with mental health issues across the country to advise on the best assistive tech to support them in their studies and in managing their lives.

emergency chat app screenshot

Check out their list of game-changing apps below: 

Emergency Chat App
The Emergency Chat App is mainly designed for someone to use when they have an autisic meltdown. The person having the meltdown can bring up a pre-determined message on their phone for those around them. The message would explain what is happening and what they need. 

In such situations talking can become impossible because speech centres become non-functional for a while, even after the person has recovered. Any kind of physical touch is often uncomfortable for the person experiencing the meltdown too. At university, where there are lots of new situations and new people, such an app could prove useful. The app also has a simple chat client which someone can use to communicate basic further information if needed.

Google Dictionary
This is a super-nifty app that anyone can use - just highlight a word and instantly see the definition of that word. 

This is a popular to-do list application, which offers multiple options to categorise lists and postone and organise them for future dates. You'll have a separate list for complete tasks and can also have shared lists with course mates. Best of all you get a nice congratulations message when you've completed your tasks.

4 Hemingway app
This app can make writing kind of fun and less of a chore. Just enter your text and any lengthy, complex sentences and common errors will be highlighted, giving you the opportunity to edit. If you see a yellow sentence, the app is suggesting you shorten or split it. If you see a red highlight, it means that your sentence could be perceived as far too dense and complicated. A purple hightlight means you could use a shorter word, ie, 'use' instead of 'utilise'. If you move your mouse over the highlight, you'll get hints.

student with ipad

5 AT Bar
Not strictly an app, but this Google Chrome Extension is an open-source, cross-browser toolbar to help users customise the way they view and interact with web pages. Drag all of the functionality you usually find useful into the tool bar to change the look and feel of webpages to suit you. Try dragging in the increase and decrease font size options for quick access, have text read aloud, use coloured overlays, readability and a dictionary to aid reading. Spell check forms and try word prediction when writing.

It's designed for those who may not have their assistive technologies to hand and need a quick way of accessing text on the screen and can help those with low vision, dyslexia and other reading difficulties, as well as those who may wish to just reduce the glare of black text on bright white backgrounds.


Tech4Good 2017 Community Impact winner employs skilled refugees to teach language and culture in UK

When Mursal Hedayat's mum fled Afghanistan in 1994 during the Afghan Civil War, she was a qualified engineer with a decade of experience in her field and spoke four languages fluently. Travelling overland to London, she didn't realise that she'd spend the next decade working in a string of low skilled jobs, or unemployed, in one of the world's most developed economies.

Her qualifications had become meaningless, she couldn’t afford to re-qualify and she became trapped. Her story is anything but unique with hundreds of talented refugees facing a bleak future as their confidence and aspirations fade. This summer, a social enterprise set up by Hedayat (pictured) to help others like her mum get skilled work, picked up the coveted AbilityNet Tech4Good Award 2017 for outstanding community impact.

Mursal Hedayat winning Chatterbox T4G Award

The venture - Chatterbox - trains and employs refugees to be language and culture tutors for individuals and organisations. 
The refugees come from many diverse areas of work, but include architects, dentists and pharmacists from places such as Syria, Iran and and Congo.
 It means they can have more hope, feel respected for their skills and have a better chance of being able to support themselves in the UK.

Community Impact Award - AbilityNet Tech4Good 2017

A year after setting up, the team is thrilled by the recognition given by the AbilityNet Tech4Good Award for Community Impact. "It gave us a really good confidence boost to win such a well known award and some good attention too," says Hedayat.

Currently, 60 refugees are employed to teach, either via online video call, or face-to-face in schools, offices and universities, mainly in London. The number has doubled from 30 in the past couple of months. Most of the refugees employed have been to university and/ or worked as teachers in their own countries, but roles are open to anyone with refugee status who is capable of doing the job. The tutors work around eight to 10 hours a week earning the London Living Wage of £9.75 an hour.

Chatterbox is building up a variety of clients, which include SOAS (School for the study of Africa, Asia and Middle East) University in London and the Red Cross. "Students can learn a plethora of interesting languages, from Arabic, Persian, Korean, Swahili and French to Hindi and Turkish. Tutors and their students can also learn more about each other's cultures and countries," says Hedayat. 

"We've also recently started working with primary and secondary skills to provide taster sessions in these languages to entice them into language learning. With business clients, the interest is in provide language lessons for staff personal development, life long learning or just for something fun to do at lunchtime."

Superstar volunteer developers

Chatterbox homepage screenshot

A lot of the communication, bookings, scheduling and invoicing for Chatterbox is done using an evolving online platform. “We have a group of superstar developers who currently give up their Saturday mornings to help build calendars and chat tools and lots of other exciting things for us,” says the entrepreneur.

We're currently moving from an off-the-shelf calendar, and creating a dashboard for tutors to track performance and invoice us
. We’d love to hear from any others who want to use their skills for social good and volunteer in our team, she adds.

Last month Chatterbox received more than 100 job applications from refugees and is keen to keep expanding to support those coming to Britain who need hope and the chance of a positive future. There is plenty of room for growth and the organisation, which has been supported with grants from NESTA, Bethnal Green Ventures, UnLtd and others, looks set to continue to attract interest and support. "The good news is we are increasingly taken on bigger clients," offers Hedayat.

  • AbilityNet Tech4Good awards, run in association with BT, are an annual event celebrating technology being used for social good. 

Read more about the awards

No Home button on the new iPhone? Here is the secret to going completely button-free

The next big Apple hardware updates (rumoured to be iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X) are announced tomorrow and we already have some ideas about what's coming. Or rather, what's not coming - and the big news is that it looks like the Home button will disappear altogether [UPDATE: we now know it's the £1,000 iPhone X which has no home button].

This may be hard to get to grips with for some. But for several years, plenty of people have been operating their iPhone without a home button. Yes, there's a built-in alternative to - not just the Home button - but indeed to all the hardware buttons that are found on an iPhone. Why avoid using the home button, you might ask? Perhaps because like millions of Chinese people, you want to keep your phone in pristine condition? Or you might have a disability, like Professor Stephen Hawking, and be unable to press the physical buttons. Or, you might not have one, like on the iPhone X!

The end of iPhone hardware buttons

Over recent years it appears to have been Apple's unspoken mission to remove as many of the moving parts from the iPhone as possible. The physical buttons (the sleep/wake button, the volume buttons, the mute switch and the Home button) all represent complexity and potential fail points in our heavily used devices.

The mute switch (pictured below) disappeared from iPads with the first iPad Air. On the iPhone, the Home button turned from being a mechanical switch to a fixed facsimile of a button in the iPhone 7 (giving us the illusion of movement with a simulated click) and now we're losing the Home button altogether in this year’s latest model.

It’s clear that Apple has it in for the remaining buttons on its mobile devices – just as it seems to want to spirit away ports on its laptops and earphone jacks on its phones. It appears that the sooner they can arrive at what they consider the ultimate aesthetic in electronic devices – namely a seamless slab of elegant material – the happier they will be.

While this will certainly assist in the long-term durability of devices (every moving part is a potential fail point and every port an invitation for liquid and pocket fluff to enter), it also represents a challenge of usability for everyone who is familiar with physical buttons and, in some cases, may find them easier to operate due to disability or impairment. For many with a vision or motor impairment, physical buttons make it easier to identify and operate controls - and I for one as a blind speech-output user don’t even need to take my phone out of my pocket to easily unlock it and choose the next album or podcast.

ipad 2 mute button

The secret to button-free iPhone operation

There is a secret already known to thousands of users who, Like Prof Stephen Hawking, have a physical impairment that gives them total button-free use of their iDevices. This secret is also shared by millions (possibly hundreds of millions) of iPhone owners in China.

What am I talking about? I’m talking about ‘Assistive Touch’ which is now a long-standing accessibility setting of several iOS versions. It puts a small menu, or toolbar, on-screen (see image below) which gives you all the functions of all the physical switches on your iPhone or iPad, including the home button - enabling you to use them all without touching a single button. It's also available using VoiceOver if that's easier for you, for whatever reason.

Apple assistive touch menu on iphone screen

Ensure that you’ve also activated the ‘Raise to wake’ setting and you now don’t even need to press a button to wake your device - complete button-free use.

Keep your iPhone buttons out-of-the-box-fresh

And what about those users in China? Why do millions of Chinese people without any sort of disability or impairment use Assistive Touch?

Turns out that the second-hand market for used iPhones in China is enormous. That appetite for used phones, however, comes with one stipulation; buyers demand a pristine Home button. Don’t ask me why and, if you don’t believe me, just check out all these Google results for yourself.

In their droves, Chinese iPhone users are avoiding ever touching their Home button to ensure it never gets worn or broken. Perhaps Home buttons are prone to wear, but if so, this isn’t widely experienced or reported on elsewhere in the world. It might all be over-caution on their part, but in any case, they are the champions of those button-free functions.

The iPhone’s new virtual Home button

The Home button has been a consistent and very useful feature of every iPhone to date. We use it for far more than just going back to the home screen; we double-click it when our phones are locked to bring up Apple Pay, do the same thing once unlocked to bring up the app switcher, and triple-click it to bring up your preferred Accessibility Settings such as VoiceOver or larger text. It’s a very versatile little doohicky.

As discussed above, however, this familiar and functional feature will soon be a thing of the past. In the latest version of the high-end iPhone, Apple's trusty Home button is rumoured to be replaced by a swipe upwards from the bottom of the screen [there is no bar at the bottom of the screen as was suggested in an earlier edit of this article]. Swiping half way up the screen and pausing briefly brings up the app-switcher and, swiping further still, closes the app and takes you back to the home screen with your grid of app icons.

Apple - always accessible and inclusive

It's not clear at the time of writing how Apple proposes to replace all the other functions that the Home button performs - and we haven’t even mentioned how you use it to reboot your phone (hold down the Home and sleep/wake buttons together for several seconds) or a long-press to invoke Siri. And let’s not even get started on what they propose to do after the loss of the beloved Touch ID (face ID anyone? Not from within my pocket, that's for sure!)

What is clear, however, is that all the familiar Home button functions will be covered in the Assistive Touch menu for the simple reason that Prof Hawking - and others with a disability - need to be able to do them too. The one thing we know about Apple for sure is that, from an accessibility and inclusive design standpoint, they never leave anyone behind.

Ahead of the iPhone 9 curve

So, if a standard menu sounds simpler than all this swiping, then Assistive Touch might be for you too. Why not check out the virtual versions of your iDevice’s buttons and switches. You may like using them with a subtle tap or two even more than having to laboriously press those clunky mechanical objects that litter the edges of your otherwise sleek and sexy smartphone - like some sort of animal!

Then, when the iPhone 9 comes out with even fewer buttons still, you’ll laugh at being so far ahead of the curve.

You’ll also be able to flog your old iPhone, with its pristine untouched buttons, for an excellent price on eBay China.


ARE YOU FREE on 23 NOVEMBER? Check out TechShare Pro, a new accessibility and UX conference for digital design professionals at IBM, Southbank