Enrolling now: Foundations in Assistive Technology Course

Our 2020 Foundations in AT course, accredited by Technological University, Dublin, kicks off on March 10th in Microsoft, Leopardstown.

The course is delivered using a combination of 3 days of face to face training, with the remainder of the course delivered online. In total, the time commitment required is 100 hours: 21 hours face to face, and 79 hours of self-directed learning. This includes completion of your course project, (due for submission 6 weeks after the final face to face training date) which we estimate should take approximately 50 hours to complete.

AT is a broad and fast evolving area and this Foundations course is designed to equip Professionals, AT users and Caregivers with up to date and relevant information that will serve as a strong basis for working in the field of disability support. Topics covered include: Access, Communication, Assessment, Daily Living, Smarthomes, AT for Education and AT for Creative Expression.

Our goal is to support your learning throughout the process. Past participants have highlighted the benefit of in-class discussion, hands on opportunities with a range of Assistive Technologies, and engagement with expert AT users. We will offer all of these resources to you as part of this course, and we welcome your feedback as you advance through the course. Please feel free to contact us directly if you have any particular queries or concerns about your participation or about navigation through the course itself.

Dates

10th March 2020: Day 1 Foundations in Assistive Technology

7th April 2020: Day 2 Foundations in Assistive Technology

28th April 2020: Day 3 Foundations in Assistive Technology

To enrol for this course, please follow this link:

https://www.eventbrite.ie/e/foundations-in-assistive-technology-10th-mar-7th-apr-28th-apr-2020-tickets-64660012839

Modules
• Computer Access & Accessibility Features
• Augmentative Communication
• AT for Leisure
• Mobile Technologies
• Environmental Control Systems
• AT Assessment
• Power Mobility
• Educational Software
• Future Technologies
• Funding and Legislation
• Integrating AT into the Curriculum and at Work

Objectives
• To provide participants with the AT knowledge and skills that they require
• To ensure AT users and potential users are central to the AT decision-making process
• To increase participants confidence in their own AT skills
• To provide participants with an understanding of the tools and processes that are required to support AT users
• To de-mystify technology
• To promote best practice and encourage the development of ongoing discussion groups post-course.

Bring your own experience and share with others. Group learning environment, on-line collaboration, interdisciplinary setting, practical.

Cost: €910.00 which includes all course materials and lunch/refreshments. We offer a range of discounts to AT users/parents/carers etc

Skyle – out of the blue

Anybody working with Assistive Technology (AT) knows how useful Apple iOS devices are. Over the years they have gradually built in a comprehensive and well-designed range of AT supports that go a long way to accommodating every access need. This is no small feat. In 2009 VoiceOver transformed what was essentially a smooth featureless square of glass with almost no tactile information, into the preferred computing device for blind people. In 2019 Voice Control and the improvements made to Assistive Touch filled two of the last big gaps in the area of “hands free” control of iOS. All this great work is not completely altruistic however as it has resulted in Apple mobile devices cementing their place as the preeminent platform in the area of disability and AT. It is because of this that it has always been somewhat of a mystery why there has never been a commercial eye tracking option available for either iOS or MacOS. Perhaps not so much iOS as we will see but certainly one would have thought an eyegaze solution for the Apple desktop OS could be a viable product.

There are a few technical reasons why iOS never has supported eyegaze. Firstly, up until the newer generations of eye gaze peripherals, eye gaze needed a computer with a decent spec to work well. iPads are Mobile devices and Apple originally made no apologies for sacrificing performance for more important mobile features like reducing weight, thickness and increasing battery life. As eye trackers evolved and got more sophisticated, they began to process more of the massive amount of gaze data they take in. So rather than passing large amounts of raw data straight through to the computer via USB 3 or Firewire they process the data first themselves. This means less work for the computer and connection with less bandwidth can be used. Therefore, in theory, an iPad Pro could support something like a Tobii PC Eye Mini but in practice, there was still one major barrier. iOS did not support any pointing device, let alone eye tracking devices. That was until last September’s iOS update. iOS 13 or iPadOS saw upgrades to the Assistive Touch accessibility feature that allowed it to support access to the operating system using a pointing device.     

iPad Pro 12" in black case with Skyle eye tracker
iPad Pro 12″ with Skyle eye tracker and case

It is through Assistive Touch that the recently announced Skyle for iPad Pro is possible. “Skyle is the world’s first eye tracker for iPad Pro” recently announced by German company EyeV https://eyev.de/ (who I admit I have not previously heard of). Last week it appeared as a product on Inclusive Technology for £2000 (ex VAT). There is very little information on the manufacturer website about Skyle so at this stage all we know is based on the Inclusive Technology product description (which is pretty good thankfully). The lack of information about this product (other than the aforementioned) significantly tempers my initial excitement on hearing that there is finally an eye tracking solution for iOS. There are no videos on YouTube (or Inclusive Technology), no user reviews anywhere. I understand it is a new product but it is odd for a product to be on the market before anybody has had the opportunity of using it and posting a review. I hope I am wrong but alarm bells are ringing. We’ve waited 10 years for eye tracking on iOS, why rush now?

Leaving my suspicion behind there are some details on Inclusive Technology which will be of interest to potential customers. If you have used a pointing device through Assistive Touch on iPadOS you will have a good idea of the user experience. Under Cursor in the Assistive Touch settings you can change the size and colour of the mouse cursor. You will need to use the Dwell feature to automate clicks and the Assistive Touch menu will hive you access to all the other gestures needed to operate the iPad. Anyone who works with people who use eye tracking for computer access will know that accuracy varies significantly from person to person. Designed for touch, targets in iPadOS (icons, menus) are not tiny, they are however smaller than a cell in the most detailed Grid used by a highly accurate eyegaze user. Unlike a Windows based eye gaze solution there are no additional supports, for example a Grid overlay or zooming to help users with small targets. Although many users will not have the accuracy to control the iPad with this device (switch between apps, change settings) it could be a good solution within an AAC app (where cell sizes can be configured to suit user accuracy) or a way of interacting with one of the many cause and effect apps and games. Again however, if you have a particular app or activity in mind please don’t assume it will work, try before you buy. It should be noted here that Inclusive Technology are offering a 28 Day returns policy on this product.

There is a Switch input jack which will offer an alternative to Dwell for clicking or could be set to another action (show Assistive Touch menu maybe). I assume you could also use the switch with iOS Switch Control which might be a work around for those who are not accurate enough to access smaller targets with the eye gaze device. It supports 5 and 9 point calibration to improve accuracy. I would like to see a 2 point calibration option as 5 points can be a stretch for some early eyegaze users. It would also be nice if you could change the standard calibration dot to something more likely to engage a child (cartoon dog perhaps).

Technical specs are difficult to compare between eye trackers on the same platform (Tobii v EyeTech for example) so I’m not sure what value it would be to compare this device with other Windows based eye trackers. That said some specs that will give us an indication of who this device may be appropriate for are sample rate and operating distance. Judging by the sample rate (given as 18Hz max 30Hz) the Skyle captures less than half the frames per second of its two main Windows based competitors (Tobii 30 FPS TM5 42 FPS). However even 15 FPS should be more than enough for accurate mouse control. The operating distance (how far the device is from the user) for Skyle is 55 to 65 cm which is about average for an eyegaze device. However only offering a range of 10 cm (Tobii range is 45cm to 85 cm, so 40 cm) as well as the photo below which shows the positioning guide both indicate that this not a solution for someone with even a moderate amount of head movement as the track box (area where eyes can be successfully tracked) seems to be very small.

the positioning guide in the skyle app. letterbox view of a persons eyes. seems to indicate only movement of a couple of centimeters is possible before going out of view.
Does the user have to keep their position within this narrow area or does Skyle use facial recognition to adjust to the user’s position? If it’s the former this solution will not be appropriate for users with even a moderate amount of head movement.

In summary if you are a highly accurate eyegaze user with good head control and you don’t wear glasses.. Skyle could offer you efficient and direct hands free access to your iPad Pro. It seems expensive at €2500 especially if you don’t already own a compatible iPad (add at least another €1000 for an iPad Pro 12”). If you have been waiting for an eyegaze solution for iOS (as I know many people have) I would encourage you to wait a little longer. When the opportunity arises, try Skyle for yourself. By that time, there may be other options available.

If any of the assumptions made here are incorrect or if there is anymore information available on Skyle please let us know and we will update this post.

Introducing a Joystick

In recent months I have been working closely with a young client to increase her independence during school and play activities. As part of this process, we trialled the Optima and Point It joysticks through the Enable Ireland loan library.

The Optima joystick is the cheaper of the two products, retailing from £175. A newer version, the n-Abler joystick, is also available and has more features and functions, but the selling point of the Optima seems to be its simplicity and therefore suitability for younger users or those with intellectual disability. The large platform of the Optima does provide stability and a natural resting place for the hand. The user was attracted to the clean, clear design and felt comfortable with it straight away. It did not take long to teach the functions of the three large coloured buttons – left-clicking, right-clicking and speed adjustment. It was helpful that the buttons were recessed into the panel as this made it unlikely they would be pressed by accident.

Optima joystick

The Optima is supplied by Pretorian Technologies who were very helpful in answering my queries and also recommended two newer products, the Slimline Joystick for smaller hands and the Ultra joystick, a more compact product for use with the head or chin. Unfortunately as they did not have a distributor in Ireland at the time, we were unable to trial these products. More information is available on their website:  https://www.pretorianuk.com/joysticks. A feature I liked is that these joysticks all come with a variety of interchangeable knobs included, rather than having to purchase these separately.

The Point It joystick, supplied by Housemate, is a smaller model which is easy to fit on a small space next to a laptop or keyboard. It has four buttons around the platform which cover left and right-clicking, double-clicking and speed adjustment. It is a more expensive product with prices starting from €476. Initially this user preferred the Optima joystick as the buttons were larger and she found them easier to use. However what made the biggest difference with the Point It joystick, in this case, was the switch on top of the standard knob. Once she discovered she could easily click and drag items using her thumb, without having to release and readjust her grip, there was no comparison.  This feature was much more intuitive and less effortful than recalling which button was needed each time and having to shift her hand position forward and back.

There are mounting plates available to secure and position the Point It joystick but in this case we found that some Dycem and Velcro did the trick! There is a ball handle version available if preferred and a variety of different knobs that can be purchased for use interchangeably with this version. There is also a Bluetooth version of the Point It joystick available which means it can be used wirelessly with a variety of devices including tablets, smart TVs and other home controls. Finally, there is a Mini Point-It which is even smaller and designed specifically for chin users and others who may need a compact joystick mounted in unorthodox positions. More information is available on the Housemate website (http://housemate.ie/point-it/) or from Edtech who are named suppliers of the product in Ireland (https://www.edtech.ie/).

Starting out, the user explored the joystick using simple games online, anything where she could scan and click to access a sound or image. For example, pressing the play button to activate a favourite video on YouTube!  It was helpful to use some of the standard Microsoft accessibility features in the early days, such as enlarging the pointer. It was also worthwhile slowing down the speed of the cursor, which could be done either through the Microsoft access features or directly through the joystick controls. Now that the client has sourced a Point-It joystick of her own, she has begun using it to access an onscreen keyboard, play games and read e-books, and to continue drawing and colouring through Microsoft Paint. It also provided valuable preparation in developing joystick skills for powered mobility. In this case, the switch feature on the Point It joystick made all the difference to the user and has opened up a world of opportunities for leisure and learning. Given the development of other Point It products by Housemate, who specialise in environmental control, I anticipate that this will be a helpful product for other uses in future. However, I would not hesitate to explore the Optima again with other users looking for a first-time easy-to-use joystick.

New smart home solutions supporting independence – and some of their hidden costs.

At first glance, Smart home products appear to be quite a low cost.  However, it is worthwhile to consider all the costs involved before getting into a specific system.  Some of these costs are not always obvious at the beginning.   Some examples are given below relating to smart home technologies.

Smart hub

A smart home hub is a hardware device that connects all of your smart home devices together. With a hub, you’ll be able to control your smart lights, thermostat and other smart home devices using one app. Most smart home hubs allow you to schedule when equipment automatically turns on or off using a mobile device.

There are a growing number of hubs to choose from, ranging from free open source solutions based on a Raspberry Pi  to commercial products such as Samsung Smartthings hub.   Each has its advantages and disadvantages.  The final cost may not always be apparent until you have set up all your smart home devices.

HomeSeer is a relatively low-cost smart hub starting at €120.  It has many advantages as it features locally managed automation for reliability, security & privacy and its compatible with many smart home products & cloud services.

However, if you want to connect a smart home product to the hub there is an extra third party charge for its plugin.  For example, if you want to connect WeMo sockets you will require a WeMo plugin costing €29, or Philips hue plugin at €32.  Expanding your smart home could work out to be more expensive than planned.

 

Subscriptions on Doorbells and cameras

Other common smart home products are video doorbells as they can bring both convenience and security to your home by streaming a live view of the doorstep to your smartphone, whether you are on the other side of the door or the other side of the world.

If you are not going to be at home all the time you may need to invest in cloud storage if you need to look back on who was at the door when you were not at home.  For example, Ring doorbell provides the option of recording your doorbells camera for up to 30 days of video history.  Rings cloud storage cost $10/month or $100/year.  Other security cameras suppliers also have similar cloud storage options.

Batteries

Other costs include batteries which are in many smart home products such as door locks, and sensors (proximity, temperature, contact).  These replaceable batteries will build up over the year.

Setup and maintenance time

One of the biggest cost and probably the most underestimated cost is the time you put into setting up and maintaining your smart home equipment. Depending on the setup cost will be from a few hundred euro to ten thousand.

Getting started with an eye – gaze device

Introducing an eye-gaze device to an individual who is non – verbal can open up a world of possibility for them; it can allow them to communicate, engage with games and play as well as allowing them to access and control their environment.

When working with children who have the potential to use eye gaze, it can be difficult to find fun and motivating ways to encourage them to engage with the device. Introducing communication-based programs too early can be too demanding and may ultimately lead to failure using the device.

Smartbox Technologies have developed a program called Look to Learn and describe it as a motivating and fun way to get started with eye gaze technology. Every activity has been developed in consultation with teachers and therapists to improve access and choice-making skills. The software consists of 40 specially created activities that easily allows therapists, families and teachers develop basic eye-gaze interaction with the child. A companion workbook is also available from the Smartbox website to download (free) and helps track and document the child’s progress as they move through the program and the complexity of the activities.

Look to Learn is available to download from Smartbox on https://thinksmartbox.com/downloads/look_to_learn/ and starts at £360.

Supporting the “Click”

I recently came across two “new” Windows programs when exploring ideas for adding extra control to a roller mouse. The search had started while we’d be looking to adapt an employee’s workplace. In her case, she had a simple request to continue to use her roller mouse – liking the feel and its movement – but she found the “lift” from the roller to click more of a challenge to carry out – particularly over long periods of use.

MetaClick toolbar to automate the mouse click
MetaClick toolbar

The first challenge was a quick one to resolve as there’s a number of well-established supports available to automate the mouse click. Programs such as Point N Click Virtual Mouse and Dwell Clicker 2 are well known and a little more polished. However, in the end, we settled on a program with a small presence on the screen called MetaClick.

The good: It’s free, easy to set up and control the “look”, straight forward layout.

Areas for improvement: Appearance looks dated, lacks the ability to move on-screen buttons to preferred areas.

Sakasa Mouse Settings menu
Sakasa Mouse Settings menu

The second challenge, in this case, related to the “orientation” of the roller mouse. The User found her control to be improved over longer periods when her mouse roller was rotated by 1800 on her countertop. This one was a little trickier to resolve but in the end, an old “prank” program called Sakasa Mouse – software which reverses the direction of the cursor movement – came to the rescue for her.

The good: It’s free, separate settings can be set for the X and the Y mouse planes, simple configuration.

Areas for improvement: No support, hasn’t been updated for several years, “jumpy” mouse movement evident on occasions.

Buddi Fall Alarm

Buddi Fall Alarm on users arm
Buddi Fall Alarm on users arm

Do you, or does a member of your family experience frequent or infrequent falls? A new device called the Buddi Fall Alarm has been released to the market that might be of interest.

One of its advantages is that it is waterproof and so can be worn in the bath and shower.

It is designed to be worn 24/7 and its sensitivity can be adjusted to suit a user’s particular needs.

The Buddi wrist band recognises when the wearer falls, but the wearer can cancel any alerts, if they can get back up again. Alternatively, the wearer can press the alert button to call for help.

Using the Buddi app, the wearer can create his/her own private group of connections, who can be alerted in the event of a fall. You can also send private messages via the app to help connected people to understand what kind of help is needed. The location of the Buddi can also been seen on the app.

There is a weekly fee for wearers who wish to connect to a monitoring station, but none if only private connections are required to respond to fall alerts.

This appears to be a handy device for people living on their own, and may help to extend that option for some wearers.

The good: waterproof, no weekly/monthly fees if alerts are limited to the wearer’s own chosen connections

The bad: raises challenging questions around privacy due to the GPS functionality

The cost: stg£99.

Irish supplier: idealtechnology.ie

AAC Awareness Month

October is AAC (Alternative and Augmentative Communication) Awareness Month. The goal is to raise awareness of AAC and to promote the many different ways in which people communicate using communication systems, both low and high tech. In order to celebrate this, some AAC companies offer discounts and special promotions. More should be announced in the coming weeks, and we will update this post to let you know!

Assistiveware will be offering a 50% discount on some of their most popular apps between the 14th and 16th October, including:

Proloquo2Go – a symbol-based acc app, compatible with iPad. iPod, iPhone and the Apple Watch.

Proloquo4text – a text-based AAC app, again available on the platforms mentioned above

Keeble – A highly customisable keyboard for iPad, iPod and iPhone, with word prediction, accommodations for physical and visual difficulties, and a speak as you type feature.

Pictello – an app for creating visual stories and schedules for iPad, iPhone and iPod.

More information can be found here:

https://www.assistiveware.com/blog/save-the-date-aac-month-discount-2019

Liberator will also be offering significant discounts of 50% off between the 10th and 14th October on two of their most popular apps:

LAMP Words for Life – an AAC app designed for those with autism, focusing on a motor planning approach to accessing vocabulary. Available on iPad, iPhone and iPod.

TouchChat AAC – A versatile app that uses both symbols and keyboard to create messages, which can then be spoken aloud, or shared through social media or email, available on iPad, iPod and iPhone.

More information can be found at:

https://mailchi.mp/liberator/aacawarenessmonth-847477?e=2e9fcac5b6

Keep an eye on this post to see other discounts as they become available!

My Computer My Way: Find how to make your device easier to use

Logo for My Computer My Way

My Computer My Way is a free online guide of accessibility features for computers, tablets and mobile phones. The aim is to provide you details to make whatever device you’re using easier to use via built-in accessibility features, browser extensions or via apps that you can install.

It’s been around for quite a number of years and having revisited the site again recently I am glad to see it has been updated to current operating systems features.  So whether you need help now with Android Pie, Windows 10 or iOS12 this useful guide has been updated to include the new built-in accessibility features. 

The layout of Accessibility features is divided into four categories

  • Vision; options include features to help you see and use applications more clearly
  • Hearing; accessibility features and information for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
  • Motor; ways to make your keyboard, mouse and mobile device easier to use.
  • And cognitive; computer adjustments that will make reading writing and using the internet easier.

Further information

https://mcmw.abilitynet.org.uk/

The good:  provides details on just about every build-in accessibility feature for your device.

The not so good: There is a limited amount of information on apps or applications that might also provide useful features.

The verdict:  A useful tool for individuals who have limited or no access to an assistive technology service and need help to find solutions on their own.

Live Transcribe: People who are deaf can have conversations with those who are hearing using this app

A cartoon figure of person holding a takeaway cup with a phone app transcribing the speech of that person.

With just an Android phone, a deaf person or someone who is hard of hearing can have a conversation with anyone.  Live Transcribe is an app that types captions accurately in the language that’s being spoken. It’s powered by Google’s speech recognition technology and there are 70 languages to choose from.

Live Transcribe is easy to use, anywhere you have a Wi-Fi or network connection and it’s free to download.

The video below demonstrates how the app can be used.

According to Dr. Mohammad Objedat, Professor, Gallaudet University:

“Live Transcribe gives me a more flexible and efficient way to communicate with hearing people. I just love it, it really changed the way I solve my communication problem.”

And what’s next?

Google are currently working on the Live Relay project which aims to make phone calls easier for individuals who are deaf or non-speaking.

Live Relay uses on-device speech recognition and text-to-speech conversion to allow the phone to listen and speak on the users’ behalf while they type. By offering instant responses and predictive writing suggestions, Smart Reply and Smart Compose will help make typing fast enough to hold phone calls without any significant delays.  Follow @googleaccess for updates.

The good:  The captioning accuracy is excellent

The not so good: No offline option

The verdict:  Works really well, a valuable tool for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing.