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The Biggest IT Help Scheme In The World

A government scheme to ensure all school pupils in England have access to computers and the internet at home could have a huge impact on the assistive technology sector.

Earlier this month, the government announced the launch of its ‘Home Access’ scheme to improve technology access for school pupils from lower-income families. Backed by some £300 million, the scheme is expected to provide computers and internet access for home use to around 270,000 families by March 2011.

Aimed at children in years 3-9 (ages 7-14) of state education in England, the scheme offers grants to low-income families, means-tested to establish eligibility, allowing them to purchase Home Access packages from selected suppliers. The packages consist of a computer, a year’s internet access, installed ‘office productivity suite’ software, and service and support for a year.

A pilot scheme run in Oldham and Suffolk during December last year proved successful, and roll-out across England is now taking place. The project is being managed by Becta ( http://www.becta.org.uk/ ), the government’s agency for information and communications technology in education.

So far, so good. But what provisions are made for pupils with disabilities?

According to the programme’s website ( http://www.homeaccess.org.uk/ ), all packages come pre-loaded with a suite of assistive technology software, which includes Read and Write Home Access Edition (a literacy support package); MindView 3 (a ‘concept mapping’ programme to help pupils visualise and solve problems); and iZoom (a magnification and speech tool). The inclusion of these features within the basic package – expected to reach 270,000 families – makes the project what is thought to be the largest ever provision of assistive technology in the world.

The ‘Read and Write’ and ‘MindView’ tools are aimed primarily at children with a range of learning difficulties such as dyslexia, while the ‘iZoom’ magnifier assists pupils with visual impairments. However, iZoom is only adequate to cope with the milder end of visual impairment. To meet the assistive needs at home of pupils who are blind, have severe visual impairment or other complex disabilities such as mobility issues or deafness, two further, more specialised packages are available.

Package one, supplied by assistive technology company Keytools, will be given out when requested by either the child or their parents. It contains a ‘BigKeys’ keyboard with larger keys and lettering, for mild visual impairments; a lightweight mini keyboard, allowing easier use by those in wheelchairs, for example; a large trackball mouse for those with limited motor skills; and high visibility stickers, again designed for visual impairments.

Package two is a bespoke package to provide equipment enabling internet access for pupils with specialist needs not covered by the basic package or package one. This may include, for example, pupils who are blind, have cerebral palsy or severe mobility problems.

It is the distribution of this second package which is likely to present the biggest accessibility challenges for the Home Access programme. Provision of equipment will be based on an individual assessment of the pupil’s needs, which are to be gauged by talking to the pupil, his or her parents and the school.

Mick Thomas, universal access manager at Becta, told E-Access Bulletin that this process is likely to take place remotely. “It doesn’t preclude a face-to-face assessment, but my guess is that in 90% of the cases it will be remote.”

As for the equipment provided after needs are assessed, Thomas said: “in theory it won’t exclude anything but in reality – and this was born out from the pilot scheme – the package is likely to be accessed more by people who have severe visual problems and people who are blind.” People with these visual impairments might receive, for example, a larger screen, a touch-screen, a Braille keyboard or screen-reader software, he said.

However, though the national rollout of funding and provision of the basic Home Access package and package one began earlier this month, package two – catering for more complex needs – is not yet available, and may not be for six months or more. “Our original objective was to get it running in late April or early May,” says Thomas. However, this date has now been moved back, due to the original supplier tender being pulled.

Despite this setback, the process is continuing, albeit at a slower rate than planned, Thomas said. “The procurement is going ahead, but we’re looking at doing it in a different way. In the original procurement there was non-compliance from a couple of the suppliers. We’ve discussed it with other suppliers and are looking to provide a service that’s up and running before the end of the summer holiday.”

The task is a considerable one for a sector that is still emerging into the mainstream, according to Ian Litterick, founder of educational assistive technology specialists iansyst ( http://www.iansyst.co.uk/ ).

“For the assistive technology industry, it’s quite a challenge to produce what is thought to be around 11,000 systems on a very short timescale,” Litterick told E-Access Bulletin.

Litterick was generally positive about the Home Access scheme. He said it should cater adequately for pupils with a range of learning difficulties, including blind and visually impaired students, through provision of screen-reader software and other tools. However, he raised concerns over the level support offered: “There’s still a training need which at the moment isn’t met under the Home Access funding, but my guess is that, in many cases, if you were a blind student you’ll be prescribed what you’ve already been using in school. But there is still potentially a big need for training there.”

Another potential concern is a lack of information about package two or any fixed date for its roll-out, with the result that pupils with more complex needs must wait at least four months for their assessments, Litterick said.

“It’s been done in a huge hurry, to extremely tight deadlines, and not every decision along the way has been optimal, but broadly speaking I think it is a very exciting project” he said. “They’ve addressed the inclusion issue, as far as technology is concerned, in a pretty comprehensive and broadly admirable way.”

Mick Thomas of Becta says that as well as the obvious benefits to pupils of the assistive elements of Home Access, the scale of provision will help bring assistive technology further into the public eye. “We’ve got a package that will overcome physical access issues for a whole bunch of people, and once we get the final piece of the jigsaw in place, it will be an amazing opportunity. A lot of the software and hardware traditionally thought of as being very niche is going to become more mainstream. I’ve worked in the assistive field for many years, and this is the opportunity we’ve been waiting for,” he said.

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