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Hacking for good: the Hackaday Assistive Technology Prize winners in their own words

In July, e-Access Bulletin reported on the Hackaday Prize, a competition that asks designers, developers and hardware enthusiasts to “build something that matters” – something that can help people or change the world for the better.

Of particular interest for readers of the Bulletin is the Assistive Technology category. Earlier this month, 20 winning assistive technology projects were selected from hundreds of entries.

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Innovation and impact honoured at Tech4Good Awards

A digital audio navigation system and a portable asthma management device are two of the winners in this year’s Tech4Good Awards, which recognises projects and individuals that are using technology to improve lives.

People honoured at the event included an IT volunteer who helped to set up a charity by establishing its ICT systems, and digital inclusion expert and campaigner Robin Christopherson.

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Steering digital inclusion from the driving seat: Q&A with Robin Christopherson, AbilityNet

When he helped co-found UK technology access charity AbilityNet in 1998, Robin Christopherson was already on his way to helping drive forward digital accessibility, and since then his work has continued to change people’s lives. He is now AbilityNet’s head of digital inclusion, after helping to grow the charity’s services. These services include website and mobile accessibility consultancy, which AbilityNet now delivers to companies including Microsoft, the BBC, HSBC and Sainsbury’s.

Christopherson has also led and worked on all manner of projects and campaigns to increase digital accessibility, particularly for blind and visually impaired people. This has included providing expert commentary for news sources such as The Guardian, and presenting on and testing new technology, whether that’s a driverless car or the latest smartwatch.

In recognition of his valuable contributions, he was surprised with a special award at the annual Tech4Good Awards earlier this month. e-Access Bulletin caught up with Christopherson to find out more about his work and get his thoughts on the evolution of accessibility.

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Technology company wins award for ‘helping kids learn’ across the globe

A UK assistive technology company has been given a prestigious business award for exporting an e-learning software package for children with disabilities.

Inclusive Technology – which provides equipment for individuals with physical disabilities, sensory impairments or learning difficulties – received a Queen’s Award for Enterprise for its HelpKidzLearn product. HelpKidzLearn features games, activities and tools designed for young children with a range of specialist learning needs.

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‘Immersion box’ wins educational technology contest

A project to create interactive video and multi-sensory environments for people with learning disabilities has been awarded almost £80,000 in a competition to find the most innovative learning technologies.

Project Immersion, from technology and design company seeper, won the award in the ‘Learning technologies: design for impact’ competition organised by government agency Innovate UK with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Among its key elements is an ‘Immersion box’ that projects video onto walls. Learners can interact with the footage and control aspects of it using gestures or touch. Project Immersion aims to help those with learning disabilities increase their skills, work with others and adjust to new environments.

The competition, announced in 2014, sought proposals for innovative ways of using technology as an educational aid.

In total, 15 winning projects were chosen to receive funding. Other winners included SafeReads, a tool to help children aged 8-14 with dyslexia. Created by assistive technology company Dolphin Computer Access, it offers learners literacy advice and support and can be installed on a range of devices. Teachers and parents have access to an interactive web portal where best practice on using the SafeReads tool can be shared.

Low-cost eye gaze tech shortlisted for education award

A low-cost eye gaze computer controller for schoolchildren is among technologies shortlisted for the 2015 Bett Awards for educational ICT. The shortlist was announced this month by i2i Events, organisers of the annual London Bett conference, with the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA).

Inclusive EyeGaze Foundations combines myGaze eye tracker hardware from German firm Visual Interaction with Eye Gaze Attention & Looking software from accessible early learning software specialists Inclusive Technology. It is portable, and works with any Windows computer.

Students can learn to track, fix their gaze and interact with images on screen. The system also allows real-time recording of students’ progress, so teachers can review where they looked and for how long using line trace, video and heat maps.

Sandra Thistlethwaite, specialist speech and language therapist at Inclusive Technology, told E-Access Bulletin the system’s cost of just under £1,000 was less than a tenth of the average previous cost of similar technologies, opening up new possibilities for eye gaze ICT in schools.

“Traditionally, devices have cost more than £10,000 so they have not been in the reaches of most schools, and you had to go through individual funding streams”, Thistlethwaite said. “So we have been working hard to get units up at a reasonable price that can be afforded by a much wider range of schools and pupils.

“We had already identified those with a physical need for eye gaze but this is now giving us the insight into how we interact with and teach pupils with more profound and complex needs, where we are not sure about their cognitive skills, or what they can understand from what they see on screen.”

It is possible that as much as 10%-20% of the UK special school population could experience some benefit from using eye-gaze technology, she said. “I was talking to a special school in the North East this morning with 120 pupils which has 20 pupils now using eye gaze and possibly more in the pipeline.”

Plans for future developments include more sophisticated learning analytics, with systems that can help users through a learning progression and return more detailed data on their work to teachers and therapists, Thistlethwaite said.

The seven other finalists in the Bett Awards special educational needs category are the Clicker Books literacy app for primary school children, from Crick Software; ReadingWise English literacy software from IdeasWise; the Dynamo Profiler online dyscalculia assessor from JellyJames Publishing; Forbrain, an auditory feedback headset for speech improvement, from Sound For Life; Read&Write literacy support software from Texthelp; Predictable, a text-based augmentative communication app, from Therapy Box; and Exam Pen, a scanner and assistive reader to help students with reading difficulties such as dyslexia take exams independently, from WizCom Tech.

Winners will be announced in January 2015.

Technology pioneers in ‘disability power list’

Champions of digital accessibility feature prominently in the first ever “disability power list”, a round-up of Britain’s 100 most influential people with a disability or impairment selected by recruitment firm Powerful Media in partnership with non-profit disability support group the Shaw Trust.

Top of the list is scientist Stephen Hawking, perhaps the world’s best-known user of synthesised speech communication and winner of a special prize at the 2012 Technology4Good Awards from charity AbilityNet. In second place is Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson, one of Britain’s greatest Paralympians and supporter last year of Go ON Gold, a national campaign to raise awareness about barriers faced by disabled people in accessing computers and the Internet.

Fifth overall came actor, writer, broadcaster and technology early-adopter Stephen Fry, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and has supported many disability technology access projects including the Fix the Web project led by Citizens Online.

Other digital pioneers in the list include entrepreneur and philanthropist Neil Barnfather, founder and director of TalkNav, a supplier of accessible mobile devices to the blind and low vision community; Gary McFarlane, managing director of Assist-Mi, a mobile app that allows people with disabilities to request assistance from service providers such as petrol stations and airports; Amar Latif, founder and director of ‘Traveleyes’, the world’s first commercial air tour operator to specialise in serving blind as well as sighted travellers; and Euan McDonald, founder of disabled access review website euansguide.com.

Also recognised are consultant Geoff Adams-Spink, who covered many technology accessibility stories in his former role as age and disability correspondent for BBC News; Caroline Waters, vice chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and former policy director at BT; and Paralympian gold medallist wheelchair sprinter Hannah Cockcroft, keynote speaker at last year’s eAccess 13 conference.

Accessible video gaming: gateway to modern life

This month SpecialEffect, a charity pioneering access to video gaming by people with disabilities, won top prize in the Accessibility category at the national Technology4Good Awards. Here, the organisation’s head of communications Mark Saville talks to E-Access Bulletin editor Dan Jellinek about how it goes about bringing games to everyone – and why this matters.

– How would you summarise the work you do?

SpecialEffect is a charity that is helping people with physical disabilities to enjoy video games for fun, inclusion and rehabilitation. There is no one-size-fits-all way of doing this, so we visit people to find out exactly what they want to play, and what they need to play it. We will then match, modify or create equipment to lend to them, and give support so they can get the best out of it. It takes time, patience and expertise, but it opens the door to self-esteem, confidence and a better quality of life.

- Why is access to gaming important?

For a whole bunch of reasons, not least to level the playing field. The people we see often cannot play real, physical games with their friends and families, so virtual games offer an important opportunity for inclusion. It is also the case that, love them or loathe them, video games are here to stay and are a huge part of modern life. It is estimated that more than 50 million people in the UK have played video games at one time or another, whether that be the latest [XBox or PlayStation??] shoot-em-up or a few minutes of fun on a smartphone. And this figure is only going to rise, along with the number of potential players who cannot join in because of a disability.

- Why is it so important to customise gaming support for each individual?

In the six years that we have been around, no two people we have seen with the same disability have had exactly the same physical abilities. And that matters when you’re talking about getting to grips with a standard handheld games console controller with a couple of small joysticks and around 10 tiny buttons and triggers on the front, sides and sometimes rear of the unit. People also want to play different games, so there is a big variety (and speed!) of button and trigger combinations to factor in.

When abilities change over time – for example with muscular dystrophy – we will make several visits to adjust or change the technology if necessary, so video games can be accessible for as long as possible for that person.

Our occupational therapists play a massive role in everything. They bring a huge amount to the process, including making sure the mounting and positioning of the equipment is safe, and sometimes enabling tiny extra finger or hand movements which can make the difference between a particular individual being able to play games, or having to just sit and watch. They have a whole assortment of wonderful stuff in their boxes, from padded garden twine to heat-mouldable resin, and different types of Velcro… all useful in some way, at some time or another.

- Do you receive much recognition and support from the mainstream gaming community?

We do not charge for our help, so we are 100% reliant on the goodwill and generosity of people to keep going. We are very fortunate in that many in the gaming community do understand what we are trying to do.

We encourage game developers to get in touch if they are interested in learning more about how their games could be made more accessible to a greater number of people, and that is beginning to happen. However, because of the complexity of video games and their controllers, we took the conscious decision not to prioritise the advocacy of accessibility within video games directly. Instead we put our efforts into working with individuals with disabilities, and by demonstrating the difference in quality of life that this level of personalised support is able to bring, we hope to inspire developers to make their games more inclusive.

- Are the techniques you develop useful in other areas of digital access or communication?

We are mixing, modifying and matching hardware and software all the time, and yes, there is often overlap into other areas of digital access. To take an obvious example, if we enable someone to access a drop-down menu in a video game, then that might have implications for other areas of computer control for that individual. It is the same for eye gaze technology, and there is plenty of crossover there in terms of using the same technology for both games and everyday communication.

- What new technologies are the most exciting for future access possibilities?

We have pretty much got our hands full trying to keep pace with the constant changes and innovations in mainstream video game control technology, but we are also currently keeping tabs on development of brain control interfaces and other biosignal systems. We’re also looking at facial and other gesture recognition systems. These all offer interesting potential for future access to video gaming.

- Why is recognition from an award such as Tech4Good important?

It was an honour and a privilege to receive the Tech4Good Accessibility Award this year. I think it is a recognition of the positive impact that our work is having on individual lives, and is a real encouragement to us that we’re doing the right thing. I also think it is a recognition that video games are becoming a huge part of society.

We are not just helping people to play video games for fun, we’re increasing their quality of life by opening the door to integration into a massive digital social network. We have often heard people say: “I can’t imagine life without video games.”

Accessible gaming guidelines win US award

A set of international guidelines to make computer games more accessible to gamers with disabilities has won an award from the US-based Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The Game Accessibility Guidelines won the intellectual and developmental disabilities category of the annual FCC Chairman’s Awards for Advancements in Accessibility.

Launched in 2012, the guidelines were created by an international group of game developers, accessibility specialists and academics and cover six categories of impairment: general, motor, cognitive, vision, hearing and speech, and are divided into three levels of complexity: basic, intermediate and advanced.

Examples of guidelines at different levels of complexity include basic: to provide details of accessibility features on game packaging or website; intermediate: to allow difficulty level to be altered during gameplay; and advanced: to allow settings to be saved to different profiles, at either game or platform level.

Ian Hamilton, an independent user experience designer and consultant from the UK who contributed to the guidelines’ development, told E-Access Bulletin: “Having a US government body make such a public statement about the importance of accessible recreation is a great milestone.

“It is recognition that other people are actually listening and paying attention, and they do value the work that various groups of advocates for game accessibility are doing to advance the field.”

Since launching in 2012, the guidelines have been constantly developed and updated as a “living document” following feedback from gamers and developers. There is a continual open call to contact the authors, to keep the guidelines as inclusive as possible.

Hamilton said he hopes the FCC award will help bring to prominence what remains a niche area in the field of digital accessibility.

“We’ve seen some pretty rapid development in the past couple of years, but the industry is still way, way behind others”, he said. “Despite the progress that is being made, by far the biggest barrier to accessibility in gaming is just a simple lack of awareness amongst developers. So anything at all that results in more conversation about it is always a fantastic thing.”

In an article on the guidelines written in a previous issue of E-Access Bulletin, Hamilton wrote that research commissioned in 2008 by US video game developer PopCap found a higher proportion of people with disabilities among gamers than in the general population.

“Games can be a huge contributor to quality of life for people who have limited recreation options, but they also enable access to culture and socialising, and can have therapeutic benefits”, the article found. “In multiplayer games and virtual worlds, everyone is able to participate on a level playing field, with players’ first impressions of someone being based on how they play the game and what they say, not on any disability they may have.”

Customisable digital tube train map wins design award

A customisable version of the London Underground map for people with impaired vision has won best transport app in this month’s UK Mobile and App Design Awards, hosted by design100.

“Colourblind tube map” was created by digital agency 232 Studios – which also won best small studio – working with accessibility specialist Ian Hamilton, also known for his work on accessible video game guidelines (see previous story, this issue).

The app is based on the official tube map – “it took some tough licensing negotiations to allow that”, Hamilton says – and offers combinations of colours and patterns which are easier to read by users with different forms of colourblindness.

Other versions are designed to cater for other vision impairments such as cataracts, loss of contrast sensitivity and myopia, with features including increased contrast; reduced glare; large detailed high-zoom maps; customisable text size; and simple interfaces with no fiddly gestures

The app previously won a Judges’ Award in last December’s Transport for London (TfL) accessible app awards, with the prize money from this helping ensure it could be made available to both Apple and Android users free of charge, Hamilton told E-Access Bulletin.

“The iconic London underground map is relied on by millions of travellers every day, but its white background, small text and low contrast differences in colour can cause problems for people with many different types of impaired vision”, the app’s developers say.

“There is a black and white pattern-based map available, but only as a PDF… [but this] is actually left over from the time before colour printing became cheaply available, it isn’t actually designed for colour-blindness, so the first enhancement was to produce something that was actually tailored to that audience, that combined colour with pattern to create something ideally suited to people who see in a restricted palette.

“Additionally, due to our past experience working on video magnifier software, another use soon became apparent. A pattern based map is free from being constrained by colour choice, meaning those colours can be altered to suit the preferences of people with a wide range of different vision impairments.”

The approach taken to develop the app is an example of the benefits digital technology can bring to all kinds of impairments, the developers say. “The tube map in the station is a physical object that has to compromise to work for as many people as possible, but digital products do not have the same constraints. Interfaces can be customised, the best solution tailored to each individual’s need.”

The same basic principles are also applicable to all map design, they say, and there has been interest in the project from across the cartography community. “Using symbols and pattern as well as colour, or providing high detail imagery that can in turn support a high level of zoom; these are things that are applicable to all maps.”

Other winners of December’s TfL accessible app competition included London’s Nearest Bus, which helps people find what bus stop they are at and when the next bus will arrive; Station Master, which offers detailed train and station access information for tube and overground lines; and Tube Tracker, an app that uses text-to-speech and high colour contrast to ease access to live journey information.

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