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.

Webcam Face trackers

User at a laptop using a webcam face tracker

Webcam Face trackers allow full control of mouse functions without the use of hands. They can be used to access a computer (Windows, Mac), as well as a tablet or smartphone (Android only at present).

Primary users of these technologies are people with motor impairments.  There are various options for hands-free control of your mouse on a computer screen such as reflective dot trackers, lip and chin joysticks, speech recognition or even eye trackers.  Webcam Face trackers are another possible option for hands-free control of your computer or phone. 

Although it may not be as accurate as other hands-free options, such as wearable sensors, with this approach, you don’t have to wear a sensor or reflective dot.  As you move your head, the motion is translated to mouse cursor movement by the webcam.  However, you do have to maintain a direct line-of-sight to the computer, and the performance is dependent on lighting conditions.

Basic pointing device support on an Android tablet or phone is possible with EVA Facial Mouse.  This is available through Google Play.  It will allow access to functions of the mobile device by means of tracking the user’s face, captured through the frontal camera. 

At the time of writing, a webcam face tracker is not available on iOS devices.  However, it is possible to use Switch Control with head gestures to act as switches.  For example look left for select, look right for home.

All 5 Webcam Face Trackers listed below have options for mouse dwell, click and drag lock.

There are two free windows webcam face trackers – Camera mouse and Enable Viacam.  Both work quite well.  For the paid options, SmyleMouse also tracks facial expressions and has the option of clicking with a smile.  ViVo offers integration with leading speech recognition programs.

As there are trial versions for most of these options below, its best to try them all to really get a feel for it and see which one works best for you.

Wearable hands-free mice options to consider are:

SmyleMouse $499


ViVo Mouse $430


Camera Mouse free


Enable Viacam free

iTracker for Mac $35

The good:  You don’t have to wear a sensor or reflective dot and they are battery-free.

The not so good: They are not as accurate as other methods of hands-free options.

The verdict:  If you don’t need very fine cursor control and don’t want to wear a sensor on your head, then webcam face trackers are a good option for hands-free control.

Wearable hands-free mice

Wearable hands-free mice allow full control of mouse functions without the use of hands. They can be used to access a computer (Windows, Mac, etc.), as well as a tablet or smartphone (Android, iOS)

Primary users of these technologies are or cervical spinal cord injury.

There are various options for hands-free control of your mouse on a computer screen such as reflective dot trackers, lip and chin joysticks, speech recognition or even eye trackers.  One other possible group of devices are wearable hands-free mice.  With this approach, you wear a sensor (usually on your head but can be worn elsewhere if that works better for you) and as you move, the motion of that sensor controls the mouse cursor.

There is no camera or other optical unit involved, so you do not have to maintain a direct line-of-sight to the computer, and the performance is independent of lighting conditions.

The GlassOuse and the Zono are wireless, requiring no physical connection between the sensor unit that you wear and the computer that you are controlling. They both have perhaps the most thorough and refined designs in this family.

 The GlassOuse package is worn like eyeglasses (but without anything in front of the eye).  It weighs about 50g. GlassOuse also supplies a range of switches that can be used to perform the mouse click such as bite, puff or a proximity switch. 

The Zono is more of a headphone-style mount for its sensor, and also has several alternative ways to wear the sensor, such as an eyeglass clip.  The Zono can be used with a breath or puff switch so you can click by blowing lightly on the switch sensor.

The EnPathia and eeZee sensors require that the mouse must be tilted, not rotated, to move the cursor. So the motion used will be quite different in the head-controlled case; to move right, you would tilt your right ear toward your right shoulder, instead of rotating your head to the right. This is a less intuitive and more difficult movement for many people.  Finally, an open-source option is the Headmouse by Millmore with build instructions available on instructables.com

Some wearable hands-free mice options to consider are

GlassOuse V1.2 €499

GlassOuse V1.2 mouse with bite switch
User with GlassOuse V1.2 mouse with bite switch

Quha Zono £550

EnPathia €227

EnPathia mouse worn on the users head
EnPathia mouse worn on the users head

eeZee Switch  $599

eeZee Switch on frame of glasses
eeZee Switch on frame of glasses

ED Air Mouse

ED Air Mouse with switches
ED Air Mouse with switches

Head Mouse by Millmore <€50

Millmore testing his Head Mouse
Millmore testing his Head Mouse

Video of user using a wearable mouse

The good:  These hands-free options can potentially have precise control and are not affected by lighting or sound.

The not so good: Commercial options are expensive.

The verdict: If you need or want the ability to make very fine cursor control, and you are happy to wear a sensor, then these wearable mice are a good option for hands-free control.

Mobile Device Accessibility: iOS and the Android Accessibility Suite

One aspect of modern technological life that might help us to keep some faith in humanity are the comprehensive assistive technologies that are built into, or free to download for mobile computing devices. Accessibility features, as they are loosely called, are a range of tools designed to support non-standard users of the technology. If you can’t see the screen very well you can magnify text and icons (1) or use high contrast (2). If you can’t see the screen at all you can have the content read back to you using a screen-reader (3). There are options to support touch input (4, 5) and options to use devices hands free (6). Finally there also some supports for deaf and hard of hearing (HoH) people like the ability to switch to mono audio or visual of haptic alternatives to audio based information.  

With their mobile operating system iOS Apple do accessibility REALLY well and this is reflected in the numbers. In the 2018 WebAim Survey of Low Vision users  there were over 3 times as many iOS users as Android users. That is almost the exact reverse of the general population (3 to 1 in favour of Android). For those with Motor Difficulties it was less significant but iOS was still favoured.

So what are Apple doing right? Well obviously, first and foremost, the credit would have to go to their developers and designers for producing such innovative and well implemented tools. But Google and other Android developers are also producing some great AT, often highlighting some noticeable gaps in iOS accessibility. Voice Access, EVA Facial Mouse and basic pointing device support are some examples, although these are gaps that will soon be filled if reports of coming features to iOS 13 are to be believed.

Rather than being just about the tools it is as much, if not more, about awareness of those tools: where to find them, how they work. In every Apple mobile device you go to Settings>General>Accessibility and you will have Vision (1, 2, 3), Interaction (4, 5, 6) and Hearing settings. I’m deliberately not naming these settings here so that you can play a little game with yourself and see if you know what they are. I suspect most readers of this blog will get 6 from 6, which should help make my point. You can check your answers at the bottom of the post 🙂 This was always the problem with Android devices. Where Apple iOS accessibility is like a tool belt, Android accessibility is like a big bag. There is probably more in there but you have to find it first. This isn’t Google’s fault, they make great accessibility features. It’s more a result of the open nature of Android. Apple make their own hardware and iOS is designed specifically for that hardware. It’s much more locked down. Android is an open operating system and as such it depends on the hardware manufactured how accessibility is implemented. This has been slowly improving in recent years but Google’s move to bundle all their accessibility features into the Android Accessibility Suite last year meant a huge leap forward in Android accessibility.

What’s in Android Accessibility Suite?

Accessibility Menu

Android OS Accessibility Suite Assistant Menu. An onscreen menu with large colourful buttons for features like, power, lock screen, volume
The figure highlighted in the bottom corner launches whatever Accessibility Suite tools you have active. If you have more than one a long press will allow you switch between tools.

Use this large on-screen menu to control gestures, hardware buttons, navigation, and more. A similar idea to Assistive Touch on iOS. If you are a Samsung Android user it is similar (but not as good in my opinion) as the Assistant Menu already built in.

Select to Speak

The select to speak tool when active on a webpage. large red button to stop speech. Arrow at left to extend menu, pause button

Select something on your screen or point your camera at an image to hear text spoken. This is a great feature for people with low vision or a literacy difficulty. It will read the text on screen when required without being always on like a screen reader. A similar feature was available inbuilt in Samsung devices before inexplicably disappearing with the last Android update. The “point your camera at an image to hear text spoken” claim had me intrigued. Optical Character Recognition like that found in Office Lens or SeeingAI built into the regular camera could be extremely useful. Unfortunately I have been unable to get this feature to work on my Samsung Galaxy A8. Even when selecting a headline in a newspaper I’m told “no text found at that location”.

Switch Access

cartoon hand activating a Blue2 switch. Android phone desktop with message icon highlighted

Interact with your Android device using one or more switches or a keyboard instead of the touch screen. Switch Access on Android has always been the poor cousin to Switch Control on iOS but is improving all the time.

TalkBack Screen Reader

Get spoken, audible, and vibration feedback as you use your device. Googles mobile screen reader has been around for a while, while apparently, like Switch Access it’s improving, I’ve yet to meet anybody who actually uses it full time.

So to summarise, as well as adding features that may have been missing on your particular “flavour” of Android, this suite standardises the accessibility experience and makes it more visible. Also another exciting aspect of these features being bundled in this way is their availability for media boxes. Android is a hugely popular OS for TV and entertainment but what is true of mobile device manufacturer is doubly so of Android Box manufacturers where it is still very much the Wild West. If you are in the market for an Android Box and Accessibility is important make sure it’s running Android Version 6 or later so you can install this suite and take advantage of these features.

Could you name the Apple iOS features?

  1. Zoom
  2. Display Accommodations or Increase Contrast   
  3. VoiceOver
  4. Assistive Touch
  5. Touch Accommodations
  6. Switch Control

Alex Lucas – Switch Access, Ableton Live and Inclusive Music

Since the year 2000 Enable Ireland’s Assistive Technology (AT) training service have run a Foundations in AT (5 ECTS) course certified by the Technological University Dublin (TUD). Those of you reading this post will most likely be familiar with AT and what a broad and rapidly evolving area it is. While overall the direction AT has taken over the last decade is positive and exciting, it has also become a more challenging area to work in. As a result, the importance and value of the Foundations in AT course has also increased and this is both reflected in, and as a direct result of the calibre of course participant we’ve had in recent years. The wealth of experience brought by participants each year helps the course evolve and develop, filling in gaps and offering new directions for technology to support people in areas beyond primary needs such as communication, access and daily living. Last month we began what is a new effort on our part to share with a wider audience some of the excellent work produced by Foundations in AT course participants with Shaun Neary’s post Accessible Photography – Photo Editing with Adobe Lightroom & the Grid 3. This month we will look at another area of creativity, music. 

Alex Lucas enrolled in the 2018 Foundations in AT course. As soon as we learned about his background and experience, we knew that his involvement in the course was an opportunity for us to learn more about accessible music technology and practice. Alex is an academic (PhD research student in Queen’s University Belfast), a maker, a musician, a developer and a product designer. Before returning to studies, he had gained 10 years’ experience working in mainstream music technology with big name companies like Focusrite and Novation. In Queens he is currently researching  “Supporting the Sustained Use of Bespoke Assistive Music Technology” and is part of the Research Group: Performance Without Barriers. He also works with Drake Music Northern Ireland

We could be accused of having underutilised Alex, but our suggestion for his project was to produce a resource that would act as an introduction to people new to the area of accessible music technology. Alex chose to focus on the mainstream Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) application Ableton Live and Switch input. As well as the project document (download link below) he released 5 really excellent tutorial videos on YouTube, the first of which is embedded here. 

Alex kindly agreed to contribute to this post so we asked him why he chose to focus on Ableton, to tell us a bit more about his work in inclusive music and a little about the research he is currently undertaking at Queens. Over to you Alex..

***

Why Ableton? 

There are many software applications available for computer-based music production. Ableton Live is arguably one of the most popular DAWs. When first released in 2001, Ableton Live set itself apart from other DAWs through a unique feature called Session View.

Session View is a mode of operation which can be thought of as a musical sketchbook providing composers with an intuitive way to create loop-based music; a feature which is particularly useful when creating electronic music. When combined with Ableton Live’s built-in virtual musical instruments and devices for creating and modifying musical ideas, we find ourselves with a rich toolset for composing music in inclusive settings.

How this works with groups?

Music connects people; we see this often when conducting group-based inclusive music workshops, making work of this kind essential to Drake Music NI. There could be up to twelve participants of mixed abilities in a typical Drake workshop. As Access Music Tutors, we approach group workshops by first speaking to each participant in turn to identify their creative goals. One individual may have an interest in playing distorted synthesiser bass sounds, while another may prefer the softer sound of a real instrument such as a piano. Knowledge of an individual’s creative goals and their access requirements is used to select an appropriate device for the participant to use to control a virtual instrument within Ableton Live.

In addition to the Access Switches described in the video’s mentioned above, Drake Music also uses commercially available assistive music technologies such as Soundbeam and Skoog, and mainstream MIDI controllers such as the Novation Launchpad. It’s possible to connect several of these devices to a single computer running Live.

Together, the group make core musical decisions; i.e. genre, tempo, musical key. The workshop will proceed in one of two ways, either we jam together, or record each participant in turn, building up a composition gradually using overdubbing techniques.

OMHI – One-Handed Musical Instrument Trust

There are a handful of other organisations within the UK, working towards providing inclusion in music. One notable organisation is the One-Handed Musical Instrument Trust (https://www.ohmi.org.uk/). Many traditional musical instruments are designed in such a way that they place a fundamental requirement on the musician; they must have two fully functional hands. This assumption results in the exclusion of some individuals from learning a traditional musical instrument. Furthermore, in some cases, accomplished musicians are not able to return to their instrument after losing the function of a hand due to illness or an accident. OHMI aims to address this shortcoming by running an annual competition which invites instrument designers to adapt traditional musical instruments to be played by one hand only. Many fantastic designs are submitted to OHMI each year. I’m particularly impressed by David Nabb’s Toggle-Key Saxophone (https://www.unk.edu/academics/music/_files/toggle-key-system.pdf) which retains all of the functionality of a standard saxophone while being playable by one hand.

Research

Whilst OHMI primarily focuses on the adaptation of traditional acoustic instruments for inclusion and accessibility; my research centres on the challenges faced by disabled musicians in the long-term use of custom-made digital musical instruments.

In partnership with a disabled musician named Eoin at Drake Music NI, together we’ve been designing a digital musical instrument tailored towards Eoin’s unique abilities. Eoin has a strong desire to play electric guitar but as Eoin cannot hold a guitar, due to its physical characteristics, he has been unable to up until this point.

Using a motion sensor and an access switch, coupled with a Raspberry Pi embedded computer, Eoin is now able to play rudimentary guitar sounds using the movements of his right arm. We’ve tested several prototypes and are now in the process of assembling the instrument for Eoin to use both during Drake music workshops and at home.

As a musician, Eoin is the primary user of the device; however we’ve also been considering Eoin’s primary carer, his father Peter, as a secondary user. We’ve designed a high-level interface for Peter to use, hopefully allowing him to easily set-up the device for Eoin to use at home. We’re particularly interested in the longevity of the device, whether or not it’s viable for Eoin and Peter to use independently. Obsolescence can be a problem for assistive technology in general. Our current assumption is that obsolescence may be an issue with custom-made accessible digital musical instruments but hope, through this research to discover useful mitigation strategies.

***

We just want to thank Alex again for making this tutorial and contributing to this post. The full accompanying document can be viewed/downloaded here. It really is a valuable resource for an area with such potential that is poorly supported at present (certainly here in Ireland) .

Keep an eye on Alex’s YouTube Channel or follow him on Twitter @alexaudio for more quality Accessible Music Technology information.


Handsfree Lip and chin Joysticks

Person using a BJOY chin joystick to control a computer
User using the BJOY chin joystick

A hands-free mouse allows you to perform computer mouse functions without using your hands. There are various options for hands free control of your mouse on a computer screen such as reflective dot trackers, wearable sensors, speech recognition or even eye trackers.  One other possible group of devices are Lip and chin Joysticks. 

These products are designed specifically for users with physical disabilities. They are typically USB Plug and Play, which means they will work with any computer platform that supports USB mice, including Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, and Android. All can be customized using the built-in mouse settings in the operating system, while some will also include setup software for further customization.

To activate the mouse buttons. The IntegraMouse+, Jouse3, and QuadJoy incorporate a sip/puff switch into their joystick, so that a sip action clicks one mouse button, and a puff action clicks the other. Other options are switches, the BJOY Chin has two circular switch pads, one on either side of the joystick, which can be pressed using the chin or cheek. And the TetraMouse has a second joystick that is devoted to button actions, right next to the joystick for cursor control. Low cost options are the Tobias’ mouse and the Flipmouse.  This are open source hardware and software projects with documented instruction on how to build and 3D Print.  The user moves the cursor by using a mouthpiece. The right mouse button is operated by pushing the mouthpiece towards the case. The left mouse button is emulated by a sensor that recognizes if the user sucks air through it.

Some Lip and chin Joysticks options to consider are

IntegraMouse+  €2000

Person using a IntegraMouse for mouse control

Jouse3 $1,495

Person using a Jouce3 for mouse control

QuadJoy 3 $1,398.60

Person using a QuadJoy 3 for mouse control

BJOY Chin €445

TetraMouse XA2 $449

TetraMouse XA2 for mouse control

Tobias’ mouse  <€50 for parts

Tobias’ mouse low cost opensource mouse

FLipMouse €179

FLipMouse low cost opensource mouse

Video

  • The good:  These hand free options can potentially have precise control and are not effected by lighting or sound.

The not so good: do require a line-of-sight to the computer, and commercial options are expensive.

The verdict:  If you need or want the ability to make very fine cursor control, and don’t want to wear a sensor or reflective dot then these joysticks are a good option for hands free control.

Voice Controlled Smart Home Tech – User review

Amazon Echo smart speaker

Over the course of history there have always been single named women who have influenced our lives and Culture: Cleopatra, Maggie, Madonna, and now it’s the turn of Alexa! I have been curious and intrigued by the benefits of technological assistants with regards my disability, so I was very excited when Enable Ireland gave me an opportunity to try out Alexa in the form of the Amazon Echo.

How easy is it to get the Echo up and running?

The initial setup of the Amazon Echo is very simple to carry out. You need to download the Amazon Alexa app to your smartphone (get used to downloading apps on your phone), the app will search for the device, the app will then connect to the device through the devices own Wi-Fi signal, you then connect your device to your home broadband, and hey presto within a few minutes your Amazon Echo is up and running.

What can Alexa do on its own?

Alexa logo - speech bubble - blue on while circle on blue background - square
Alexa Logo

The initial benefits of the Amazon Echo for a person with a disability are very limited. You can ask Alexa what the weather will be like, what time it is, to set reminders, and some other quirky less useful questions: “Alexa, tell me a joke”, “What’s the capital of Finland?”, or more randomly “Alexa, beatbox for me”.

Using the Alexa app you can enable other skills to assist you in your daily activities. If you are into music you can add 🙂 your Spotify profile to Alexa, this is very simple to do if you can use a smartphone. Alexa will then play your playlists through its impressive speakers. This is very handy, even for someone who is not into music much, as it means I don’t need to listen to music through my basic phone speakers nor do I have to call someone to change a cd in my stereo. It is great for podcasts as well, though as Alexa sometimes has difficulty understanding people you might be better off setting up a playlist through your Spotify app first if any of your favourite podcasts have quirky names like my favourite Arsenal podcast Arsecast by Arseblog!

If you have vision impairment, have difficulty holding a book, or you just like Audiobooks you can quickly add your Audible account too, tilt back in your chair and listen to your favourite book or a new release. It can also update you with the latest news, traffic, and weather for your area as well.

If you have trouble with your memory because of a head injury, or you just have a head like a sieve as I do, the reminders and timers could be very useful. I normally add reminders to my phone as I can’t write them down but just immediately calling them out is useful as sometimes I go to add them to my phone and get distracted by Twitter and the likes. The timers are useful if you’re cooking and the chicken needs just five minutes more.

What can Alexa do using IOT – The Internet Of Things?

For someone with a physical disability this is where it really sparked my interest. I struggle with some aspects of technology and to physically control my environment so I thought I would benefit from Alexa and the Echo.

Smart WeMo Plug

wemo smart plug in double socket
WeMo Plug

Firstly I decided to set up the lamp in my sitting room. In order to use Alexa to switch on your light you either need a smart plug or you need smart bulbs and a Wi-Fi hub. Enable Ireland had also provided me with a WeMo smart plug in this instance. The setup for the WeMo smart plug was very similar to the initial setup of the Amazon Echo: download the app, connect to the devices own Wi-Fi, and connect the device to your home broadband.

Once you have that done you can control the lamp directly from your smartphone only if you wanted, in order to connect it to the Alexa you need to go back to the Alexa app and pair the Alexa with the WeMo smart plug from there. 

Overall it is very simple System and process and once you have it up all you have to do is say “Alexa, turn on the lamp”. This was a complete success and over the time I had the devices this is the one that proved most simple to use and most consistent. It was lovely if I was on my own for a little while coming toward evening, I could give that simple command and “Let there be light!”

Firestick TV

Amazon Firestick

The other devices I had to connect to the Echo were related to the TV. I use an Amazon fire stick to play games on my TV and also to watch Netflix. I knew from watching YouTube videos that you could pair your Amazon Echo with your fire stick and use Alexa to open Netflix and play your movies and shows.

Unfortunately this was not so easy to carry out. It seemed simple at first, get your Alexa device to scan your Wi-Fi for compatible devices and when you see the Firestick click connect. Unfortunately this is where I ran into some problems. In order to get the Alexa to carry out these procedures I had to enable its TV skills through the app. I had to do something similar to set up my Spotify account so I wasn’t too worried at first. Frustratingly when I went into the app to enable that TV skill the screen went blank and gave me no options to enable it. After numerous attempts to carry this out and searches on the internet to find a solution I eventually contacted Amazon’s online support and having gone through three advisors I found the solution by enabling it through my laptop and my Amazon account on the Desktop site. Phew!

The results of that is I can come into sitting room in the morning, with the TV turned off, and ask Alexa to open Netflix. If you know the name of the movie or show you want to watch you can ask Alexa to open it directly. You can play, pause and fast forward or rewind whatever you are watching. This has been very helpful for me is the remote for my fire stick is tiny and the buttons are incredibly difficult to press. If you are a movie buff and have difficulties using small remotes then this solution is probably worth all the hassle it took to set it up in the first place!

Harmony Hub

Logitech Harmony Hub universal IR remote control
Harmony Hub

In the package from Enable Ireland there was also a Logitech Harmony Hub. At first, I had no idea what it was. I had never heard of it before. A bit of Googling revealed that it is a universal remote control. A bit of YouTubing revealed that it could be paired with Alexa to turn on and control a whole host of electronic devices including your TV, Stereo System, or Sky Box.

This is a complex setup. You set up the Harmony hub much the same way as you do the other devices. So again that means you need to download another app to connect it to your Wi-Fi, I hope you have enough space on your smartphone!  Once it is set up and ready to go you need to use the Alexa app to enable the Harmony Hub skill so Alexa can communicate with the Harmony Hub. Now use the Harmony App to scan for smart devices that may be on your Wi-Fi already, like a smart TV. If you have something that is not smart like my Sky box, you simply search in the app for the product and add it to your list of devices. Right, now that you have your devices listed and the Hub and Alexa can talk to one another what can you tell them to do?

Using the Harmony app you can set up a range of “activities”. These are relatively easy to set up as you follow a step by step process through the app. Quite quickly I had it set up so that I could tell Alexa to turn on the TV, it would turn on the TV and set it to the Sky TV extension immediately. I also set it up so I could increase and decrease the volume of the TV and I could change the ordinary terrestrial channels on the TV. I have seen that you can change channels on your Sky box and set “favourite channels” to tune to quickly but, frustratingly, while I can do that through the Harmony app on my phone I haven’t been able to do that using Alexa despite numerous and persistent attempts. Apparently, it is possible if you set an “activity” for each individual channel but life is too short!

If you are technically proficient enough and you have a big enough budget there are whole host of other devices you could use with the Alexa to smarten up your home whether it is to control your heating or even to unlock your door!

Are there Privacy Issues?

screenshot of Alexa terms of use
Alexa terms of Use

There are some concerns about privacy and the Alexa. Some of the stories surrounding this issue I’m sure have been exaggerated for headlines but there is a basis to some of the concern too with Amazon admitting that staff listen to people’s interactions with Alexa (I think they’ll get a laugh from some of my frustrated interactions where Alexa was called everything under the sun while I tried in vain to control the Sky box via Alexa).

The Terms of Use is the first thing you’ll see when you download the Alexa app. This sort of sets the tone for what to expect with Alexa.

I know from my experience with the Alexa that there have been some strange happenings. During conversations in the same room as the Alexa the blue light that indicates Alexa is listening has come on. On another occasion Alexa has piped up with search results that were not asked for in the middle of a conversation. Nothing too sinister I’m sure but something I’m personally not too comfortable with.

It’s up to you whether you’re willing to give up that sense of personal privacy in place of the benefits Alexa provides.

Conclusion

I was very excited to try out the Amazon Echo and Alexa. I felt this was my opportunity to finally make up my mind on whether to purchase one or not, a decision I had been debating over for some time.

Alexa promises so much to help me with my physical disability. Overall in this aspect it did live up to expectation. It was frustrating that I couldn’t manage to set it up to operate my Sky box but I was able to set it up to use most the functions on my TV, and the Alexa in conjunction with the WeMo plug gave the most satisfying and consistent function of switching my sitting room lamp on and off. If I were to purchase an Echo I would consider investing further into the other devices that could do as the WeMo plug did.

The other aspects of the Echo were less beneficial to me as they didn’t involve improving my access to my physical environment. That does not take away from the fact that they could be hugely beneficial for someone with a different disability such as a sensory disability: reminders, timers, your Spotify, and your Audiobooks through Alexa would simplify so many parts of a person’s life.

For someone with a high level disability or someone who has difficulty using a smartphone the set up process of the Echo itself may be a little complex. The set up process for some of the “activities” on the Harmony Hub would take the most seasoned of smartphone users to the point where they just give up (ie. me 🙂

The initial cost of the Amazon Echo is very affordable. However, if someone with a disability wishes to use the Echo and Alexa to its full potential to make their lives more independent then they will need to spend a lot more. A quick Google suggested that a Wi-Fi plug similar to the WeMo plug is €22 each while a Harmony Hub remote is available for approximately €120. So if you’re hoping to live in a completely smart home it’s going to be difficult if you’re sole source of income is your Disability Allowance.

All that being said, that decision I have been debating over for some time, have I made it? Well, in a sense I have. I am fortunate to be able to use my mobile phone without much difficulty so in the short term I think I will get a Harmony Hub which will allow me to carry out most of what Alexa has been doing for me on this trial but through my phone and without the worry of Amazon employees listening in on me. In the medium to long term I’m sure I’ll revisit Alexa or even the Google equivalent!

Hands free reflective dot trackers

user using a refective dot tracker to control their computer

If you have a physical limitation that makes it difficult or impossible to use a traditional mouse with your hands, a hands-free mouse can be critical to accessing a computer comfortably and efficiently. A hands-free mouse allows you to perform computer mouse functions without using your hands. There are various options for hands free control of your mouse on a computer screen such as wearable sensors, eye trackers or even speech recognition.  One other possible group of devices are reflective dot trackers. You wear a small reflective dot (often placed as a sticker on the forehead or glasses), and a special sensor unit mounted on or near your computer tracks the motion of the dot to control the mouse cursor as you move.  There is no wired connection between you and the device.   The wearable reflective dot is smaller and less conspicuous than some of the other wearable sensor options. 

These products can replace a traditional mouse for computing platforms such as Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. And some will work with platforms like Android and Chrome OS as well.

Some reflective dot trackers options to consider are as follows

TrackerPro $995

HeadMouse Nano £888.00

SmartNAV 4:AT €465.00

AccuPoint $1,995.00

The good:  If you are OK with wearing the reflective dot you can independently control a mouse cursor without requiring someone to assist putting on a wearable sensor.  Also less chance in something not working than other hands free options such as eye gaze or voice recognition.

The not so good: does require a line-of-sight to the computer, and can be sensitive to lighting conditions.

The verdict:  If you need or want the ability to make very fine, high-resolution movements of the mouse cursor, similar to what is possible with a traditional mouse, then reflective dot trackers are a good option.