The Accessibility Checker feature has been part of Microsoft Office for the last few iterations of the software package. It provides a fast and easy way to check whether the content you are producing is accessible to users of assistive technology. By making accessibility accessible Microsoft have left no room for excuses like “I didn’t know how…” or “I didn’t have time..”. You wouldn’t send a document to all your colleagues full of misspellings because you were in a hurry would you? The one criticism that could have been leveled at Microsoft was perhaps they didn’t provide enough support to new users of the tool. As I said above it’s easy to use but sometimes users need a little extra support, especially when you are introducing them to something that may be perceived as additional work. Thankfully Microsoft have filled that gap with a 6 part tutorial video which clearly explains why and how to get started using Accessibility Checker. Part 1 is a short introduction (embedded below) followed by a video on each important accessibility practice; Alternative Text, Heading Styles, Hyperlinks, File naming and Tables. Each video is accompanied by a short exercise to allow you put your new skill into practice immediately. The whole tutorial can be completed in under 20 minutes. This tutorial should be a requirement for anybody producing documents for circulation to the public. Have a look at the introduction video below.
Here in Enable Ireland AT service we have been investigating using the Office Mix plugin for PowerPoint to create more engaging and accessible eLearning content. While we are still at the early stages and haven’t done any thorough user testing yet, so far it shows some real promise.
From the end user perspective it offers a number of advantages over the standard YouTube style hosted video. Each slide is marked out allowing the user to easily skip forward or back to different sections. So you can skip forward if you are comfortable with a particular area of the presentation or more importantly revisit parts that may have not been clear. The table of contents button makes this even easier by expanding thumbnail views of all the slides which directly link to the relevant sections of the video. There is also the ability to speed up or slow down the narration. Apart from the obvious comic value of this it is actually a very useful accessibility feature for people who may be looking at a presentation made in a language not native to them or by someone with a strong regional accent. On the flip side it’s also a good way to save time, the equivalent of speed reading.
From the content creator’s perspective it is extremely user friendly. Most of us are already familiar with PowerPoint, these additional tools sit comfortably within that application. You can easily record your microphone or camera and add to a presentation you may have already created. Another feature is “Inking”, the ability to write on slides and highlight areas with different colour inks. You can also add live web pages, YouTube videos (although this feature did not work in my test), questions and polls. Finally the analytics will give you a very good insight as to what areas of your presentation might need more clarification as you can see if some chooses to look at a slide a number or times. You can also see if slides were skipped or questions answered incorrectly.
Below is a nice post outlining some ways to create inclusive content using Office Mix and Sway, Microsoft’s other new(ish) web based presentation platform. Below that is a much more detailed introduction to Office Mix using… yes you guessed it Office Mix.
There is of course some cross over between the different AT highlights of 2016 I have included here. An overall theme running through all the highlights this year is the mainstreaming of AT. Apple, Google and Microsoft have all made significant progress in the areas previously mentioned: natural language understanding and smart homes. This has led to easier access to computing devices and through them the ability to automate and remotely control devices and services that assist us with daily living tasks around the house. However these developments are aimed at the mainstream market with advantages to AT users being a welcome additional benefit. What I want to look at here are the features they are including in their mainstream products specifically aimed at people with disabilities with the goal of making their products more inclusive. Apple have always been strong in this area and have lead the way now for the last five years. 2016 saw them continue this fine work with new features such as Dwell within MacOS and Touch Accommodations in iOS 10 as well as many other refinements of already existing features. Apple also along with Siri have brought Switch Control to Apple TV either using a dedicated Bluetooth switch or through a connected iOS device in a method they are calling Platform Switching. Platform Switching which also came out this year with iOS 10 “allows you to use a single device to operate any other devices you have synced with your iCloud account. So you can control your Mac directly from your iPhone or iPad, without having to set up your switches on each new device” (need to be on the same WiFi network). The video below from Apple really encapsulates how far they have come in this area and how important this approach is.
Not to be outdone Microsoft bookended 2016 with some great features in the area of literacy support, an area they had perhaps neglected for a while. They more than made up for this last January with the announcement of Learning Tools for OneNote. I’m not going to go into details of what Learning Tools offers as I have covered it in a previous post. All I’ll say is that it is free, it works with OneNote (also free and a great note taking and organisation support in its own right) and is potentially all many students would need by way of literacy support (obviously some students may need additional supports). Then in the fourth quarter of the year they updated their OCR app Office Lens for iOS to provide the immersive reader (text to speech) directly within the app.
Finally Google who would probably have the weakest record of the big 3 in terms of providing inbuilt accessibility features (to be fair they always followed a different approach which proved to be equally effective) really hit a home run with their Voice Access solution which was made available for beta testing this year. Again I have discussed this in a previous post here where you can read about it in more detail. Having tested it I can confirm that it gives complete voice access to all Android devices features as well as any third party apps I tested. Using a combination of direct voice commands (Open Gmail, Swipe left, Go Home etc.) and a system of numbering buttons and links, even obscure apps can be operated. The idea of using numbers for navigation while not new is extremely appropriate in this case, numbers are easily recognised regardless of voice quality or regional accent. Providing alternative access and supports to mainstream Operating Systems is the corner stone of recent advances in AT. As the previous video from Apple showed, access to smartphones or computers gives access to a vast range of services and activities. For example inbuilt accessibility features like Apple’s Switch Control or Google’s Voice Access open up a range of mainstream Smart Home and security devices and services to people with alternative access needs where before they would have to spend a lot more for a specialist solution that would have probably been inferior.
Speech Recognition has been around a long time by technology standards however up until about 2010 most of it was spent languishing in Gartner’s wonderfully named “Trough of Disillusionment”. This was partly because the technology hadn’t matured enough and people were frustrated and disappointed when it didn’t live up to expectations, a common phenomenon identified by the previously alluded to Hype Cycle. There are a couple of reasons why Speech Recognition took so long to mature. It’s a notoriously difficult technical feat that requires sophisticated AI and significant processing power to achieve consistently accurate results. The advances in processing power were easy enough to predict thanks to Moore’s Law. Progress in the area of AI was a different story entirely. Speech Recognition relies first on pattern recognition, but that only takes it so far. To improve the accuracy of speech recognition improvements in the broader area of natural language processing were needed. Thanks to the availability of massive amounts of data via the World Wide Web, much of it coming from services like YouTube we have seen significant advances in recent years. However there is also human aspect to the slow uptake of speech driven user interfaces, people just weren’t ready to talk to computers. 2016 is the year that started to change.
Siri (Apple) who was first on the scene and is now 5 years old and getting smarter all the time came to MacOS and AppleTV this year. Cortana (Microsoft) who started on Windows Phone, then to the desktop with Windows 10, made her way onto Xbox One, Android and iOS and is soon to be embodied in all manner of devices according to reports. Unlike Siri, Cortana is a much more sociable personal digital assistant, willing to work and play with anyone. By this I mean Microsoft have made it much easier for Cortana to interact with other apps and services and will be launching the Cortana Skills Kit early next year. As we’ve seen in the past it’s this kind of openness and interoperability that takes technologies in directions not envisaged and often leads to adaption and adoption as personal AT. If there was a personal digital assistant of the year award however, Amazon Echo and Alexa would get it for 2016. Like Microsoft, Amazon have made their Alexa service easy for developers to interact with and many manufacturers of Smart Home products have jumped at the opportunity. It is the glowing reviews from all quarters however that makes the Amazon Echo stand out (a self-proclaimed New Yorker Luddite to the geeks at CNET). Last but not least we have Google. What Google’s personal digital assistant lacks in personality (no name?) it makes up for with stunning natural language capabilities and an eerie knack of knowing what you want before you do. Called Google Now on smartphones (or just Google App? I’m confused!), similar functionality without some of the context relevance is available through Voice Search in Chrome. They also offer voice to text in Google Docs which this year has been much improved with the addition of a range of editing commands. There is also the new Voice Access feature for Android currently in beta testing but more on that later. In the hotly contested area of the Smart Home Google also have a direct competitor to Amazons Echo in their Google Home smart speaker. Google are a strong player in this area, my only difficulty (and it is an actual difficulty) is saying “ok Google”, rather than rolling off the tip of my tongue it kind of catches at the back requiring me to use muscles normally reserved for sucking polo mints. Even though more often than not I mangle this trigger phrase it always works and that’s impressive. So who is missing? There is one organisation conspicuous by their absence with the resources in terms of money, user data and technology who are already positioned in that “personal” space. Facebook would rival Google in the amount of data they have at their disposal from a decade of video, audio and text, the raw materials for natural language processing. If we add to this what Facebook knows about each of its users; what they like, their family, friends and relationships (all the things they like), calendar, history, interests… you get more than a Personal Digital Assistant, maybe Omnipersonal Digital Assistant would be more accurate. The video below which was only released today (21/12/16) is of course meant as a joke (there are any number of things I could add here but I’ll leave it to the Guardian). All things considered however it’s only a matter of time before we see something coming out of Facebook in this area and it will probably take things to the next level (just don’t expect it to be funny).
What does this all mean for AT? At the most basic level Speech Recognition provides an alternative to the keyboard/mouse/touchscreen method of accessing a computer or mobile device and the more robust and reliable it is the more efficiently it can be used. It is now a viable alternative and this will make a massive difference to the section of our community who have the ability to use the voice but perhaps for any number of reasons cannot use other access methods. Language translation can be accurately automated, even in real time like the translation feature Skype launched this year. At the very least this kind of technology could provide real-time subtitling but the potential is even greater. It’s not just voice access that is benefiting from these advances however, Personal Digital Assistants can be interacted with using text also. Speech Recognition is only a part of the broader area on Natural Language Processing. Advances in this area lead directly to fewer clicks and less menu navigation. Microsoft have used this to great effect in their new “Tell me what you want to do” feature in their Office range. Rather than looking through help files or searching through menus you just type what tool you are looking for, in your own words, and it serves it right up!
Natural Language Processing will also provide faster and more accurate results to web searches because there is a better understanding of actual content rather than a reliance on keywords. In a similar way we are seeing this technology working to provide increased literacy supports as the computer will be able to better understand what you mean from what you type. Large blocks of text can be summerised, alternative phrasing can be suggested to increase text clarity. Again the new Editor feature in Microsoft Word is made possible by this level of natural language understanding.
As we approach the end of 2016 it’s an appropriate time to look back and take stock of the year from an AT perspective. A lot happened in 2016, not all good. Socially, humanity seems to have regressed over the past year. Maybe this short term, inward looking protectionist sentiment has been brewing longer but 2016 brought the opportunity to express politically, you know the rest. While society steps and looks back technology continues to leap and bound forward and 2016 has seen massive progress in many areas but particularly areas associated with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Smart Homes. This is the first in a series of posts examining some technology trends of 2016 and a look at how they affect the field of Assistive Technology. The links will become active as the posts are added. If I’m missing something please add it to the comments section.
Software of the Year – The Grid 3
Open Source AT Hardware and Software
So although 2016 is unlikely to be looked on kindly by future historians… you know why; it has been a great year for Assistive Technology, perhaps one of promise rather than realisation however. One major technology trend of 2016 missing from this series posts is Virtual (or Augmented) Reality. While VR was everywhere this year with products coming from Sony, Samsung, Oculus and Microsoft its usefulness beyond gaming is only beginning to be explored (particularly within Education).
So what are the goals for next year? Well harnessing some of these innovations in a way where they can be made accessible and usable by people with disabilities at an affordable price. If in 2017 we can start putting some of this tech into the hands of those who stand to benefit most from its use, then next year will be even better.
Increasingly schools are opting for what is sometimes termed a digital schoolbag. This involves the purchase of an electronic device, usually an iPad with a package of digital textbooks pre-installed. Digital textbooks are undoubtedly a step in the right direction in terms of accessibility and are indeed essential for many students with disabilities. There are students however who may need to use a different platform (hardware and/or operating system – OS) because of compatibility issues with their Assistive Technology. Currently the most popular platform being adopted by schools is Apple iOS with parents being directed to purchase an iPad from a contracted supplier. Many readers of this article will be well aware of all the great inbuilt accessibility features within iOS however if you are a user of Eye Gaze or Speech Recognition (for access) it does not currently support your chosen AT.
It is understandable why from a school’s perspective having all students using identical standardised devices would be preferable and there are plenty of reasons why Apple iOS would be the obvious choice. There is a concern however that the small minority who may need to use other platforms because of access difficulties could be put at a disadvantage or perhaps not be able to participate fully in all activities. One of the leading school suppliers have assured us that the textbooks can be accessed on Windows, iOS and Android and as these textbooks are sourced from the same few publishers one can assume this applies for all suppliers. It is therefore up to the schools to ensure all lessons utilizing technology are identical whenever possible; equivalent when not, regardless of the device/platform you are using. Parents, particularly those whose children use Assistive Technology should not feel pressured by schools to purchase technology that isn’t the optimum for their child’s needs. If a therapist or AT specialist has recommended a particular solution that differs from what is being suggested by the school, the priority should obviously be the students’ needs. When it comes to AT it is the school’s responsibility to accommodate the different needs of its student, just as it was before the digital schoolbag. The use of technology within our schools is to be embraced but it is important that schools ensure that the curriculum is open and in no part dependent on one particular platform or device. That would just see us swapping one form of inequality for another and that’s not progress.
If anyone would like advice on what technologies are available to support access, literacy and productivity on any platform they should feel free to contact us here in the National Assistive Technology Service in Sandymount, Dublin.
One of the more dubious advantages of working in a long running Assistive Technology service is access to an ever growing supply of obsolete hardware. While much of it is worthless junk now considering the technological progress in the field over the last 10 years, there are some real gems to be rediscovered. These were innovative solutions of their time grounded in strong research and while being seemingly made obsolete by a newer technology actually still have much to offer. The LOMAK keyboard is certainly one of these and being possibly the only piece of AT on permanent display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art I’m obviously not alone in thinking this.
The LOMAK (Light Operated Mouse And Keyboard) was invented by New Zealander Mike Watling and first came on the market in 2005 after a number of years research. It allowed hands free computer access through the innovative use of a laser pointer and light sensitive keyboard and mouse controls. To make the light sensitive keyboard and mouse (I’ll call it an input device from here) Watling used an array or photoresistors, one for each keyboard, mouse action and setting. This amounted to a whopping 122 photoresistors and possibly the most electronically complex input device ever marketed. Although complex the idea behind the LOMAK is quite straight forward. Photoresistors change their resistance depending on the amount of light they are picking up. Once you figure out roughly how much shining a laser pen on the resistor changes its value you have a good idea of where to set your threshold. You can then use the photo-resistor as a straightforward momentary switch, like a keyboard key, that activates once the resistance goes above/below a certain threshold. If you are like me you will want to see inside this thing so here it is.. (Below), a thing of beauty I’m sure you’ll agree.
So why aren’t more people using LOMAK keyboards today? Well eye tracking technology was just starting to become a realistic possibility for AT users with devices like the Tobii P10 hitting the market. Eye tracking just made more sense for computer access, it allows a neater more mobile solution and it a more direct input method. What has given the whole concept behind the LOMAK a new lease of life is the availability of cheap user-friendly prototyping platforms like Arduino.
This was the basis of one of the project proposals we made available to the final year students of the BSc (Honours) Creative Media Technologies course in IADT. Over the last few years Enable Ireland AT service have worked with IADT lecturer Conor Brennan to provide students with a selection of project briefs that both fit with their learning and skills while also fulfilling a need that has been recognised through our work supporting AT users and professionals in the area. This particular brief was to create a MIDI interface based on the same concept as the LOMAK that would allow someone to perform and compose music using only head movements. There are solutions available that use eye tracking to achieve this, for example the fantastic EyeHarp and more recently Ruud van der Wel of My Breath My Music released his Eye Play Music software. However these solutions all require a computer, we wanted something that was more in keeping with current trends in mainstream electronic music which seems to be moving back to a more hardware based performance. Thankfully a particularly talented student by the name of Rudolf Triebel took on the challenge of designing and building what we are now calling the MILO (Musical Interface using Laser Operation) (previously called LOMI Light Operated MIDI Interface which I think is much better..:). Rudolf exceeded our expectations and created the prototype you can see in the (badly filmed, sorry) video below. He has also created a tutorial including wiring diagram, code and bill of materials and put it up on Instructables to allow the project to be replicated and improved by others.
If you would like to see and maybe have a go of the MILO prototype (in its spanking new laser cut enclosure) Conor Brennan of IADT will be showing and demonstrating it at the 25th EAN Conference which takes place in University College Dublin between Sunday 29th – Tuesday 31st May.
Keep an eye on electroat.com where I hope to add a few more detailed posts on building, modifying and increasing the functionality of Rudolf’s design. I will also look into the possibility of using the same concept for building a hands free video game controller.
If you are considering setting up a computer hub, internet café it’s essential to consider the people who will be using it. It’s a great way to share ICT resources but they need to be inclusive so all can benefit from it.
As these computers are generally shared, you are likely to have different individuals of various abilities using them at each session. With lots of variations of both keyboard and mouse styles you may ask the question “how do I set the computer hub/internet café up so that it will be inclusive for all to use?” Certain keyboards or mice may be suitable for some but not ideal for others!
There is a good argument for keeping the standard computer keyboard and mouse setup on most of your computers, as for the majority the standard setup may work well. Also a standard computer keyboard and mouse is what will be already familiar to many.
It’s hard to make general recommendations for specific groups of users as every individual will have their own different needs and preference for using particular technologies. It’s best to be equipped with a range of alternative keyboards and mice or other solutions. Then whenever anyone experience problems you have to tools to go through alternative options with the individual user. As you get to know the users you could leave some computers with a particular setup.
Some examples of alternative options you could consider are below.
If a user has difficulty with a standard keyboard or mouse there are a number of changes that you can make to make them more accessible. Accessible features are available on most desktop/laptop PCs. They are built-into the operating systems such as Microsoft Windows, OS X, and on Linux based operating systems.
On Microsoft Windows the accessibility features are located within the Ease of Access Centre. It’s very worthwhile to consider these tools within the Ease of Access Centre first, as there are many useful features that adapt the way the keyboard or mouse will work without the need of additional hardware. For the keyboard there are features such as Sticky Keys, Toggle Keys, or Filter Keys and for your mouse you can change the pointer size, pointer speed or turn on Mouse Keys to use your keypad to move the mouse. There are also options to make the content easier to see on your screen, such as Magnifier or high contrast mode, etc. Try playing with the features to see the effect it produces.
On windows 10 to get into these options select the Start button, then select Settings, then Ease of Access
If you have an older Windows based operating systems see Windows 7 Ease of Access instructions
If a user finds it hard to see the letters and symbols on the keyboard then keyboard stickers may provide a solution. However, on a regularly used keyboard these stickers may come off over time.
They are available from a range of online sources. One supplier can be found here
Hi-visibility keyboards can be similar to regular keyboards apart for the extra-large or high contrast symbols on the keyboard keys. They offer a solution for users with a visual impairment and may be a better option than keyboard stickers. Again there are various online sources. The following is an example which is a relatively low cost standard layout keyboard with extra-large text on the keys.
Compact keyboards are like standard keyboards with the Number pad section taken away. They have the benefit that they have a reduced number of keys and they allow you to have the mouse closer to the user which can be good for users who have a restricted hand reach. The compact keyboard below can also be supplied with a keyguard.
A “keyguard” will allow the user to rest their hand on the keyboard and target the keypress to a single key. May be suitable for someone who needs to support their hand so that they can press a single key on the keyboard at a time. They can typically be detached from the keyboard when required.
BigKeys keyboards have lettering about 1/2 inch tall on the large keys. They also tend to have a more simplified layout and reduced number of keys. They are suited to people who do not have the fine motor hand control for a standard keyboard or for those who need a much more simplified keyboard layout. However these keyboards are not suitable for touch typing.
As well as the QWERTY keyboard layout there is the option of an ABC layout. For a new computer user it will be an easier way to learn the layout of the keyboard, however the user may come to rely on this layout which will make it difficult to go another computer which doesn’t have a similar keyboard layout. For someone continually struggling with finding the keys this may be a suitable option.
Learn Touch typing
The benefits of gaining touch typing skills should not be underestimated. As well as significantly improve your typing speed, touch typing teaches you to rely on motor memory freeing you up to direct your focus on the screen instead of the keyboard. You can also adopt a more healthy posture, provide increased comfort and reduce the risk of injury. There are many good free and commercial typing tutors available.
As for the computer mouse, again finding what suits the individual user is necessary. That may be using the standard mouse, or making adjustments on the Ease of Access Centre or using some of the mouse alternatives below.
Trackball mice stay in one place and save you valuable desk space. The Kensington Orbit Optical Trackball is a nice low cost option. There are many trackball variations, some are even build into keyboards. May be suitable for someone who has a limited hand reach.
With a joysticks it can be harder to control the mouse pointer compared to using a standard mouse, however if someone has a significant physical disability, it may provide a good option.
Inclusive Technology have sourced a range of various options that are worth considering.
Mouse and Keyboard combined
There are also combined keyboard and mice options that allow mouse and keyboard control within a compact area which may be suitable for a user with limited reach.
Such as the Rapoo Wireless Touch Keyboard
Voice recognition can be a really effective way to input text. It requires knowing exactly what you need to type before saying it, which can be hard. It doesn’t work for everyone and there is a steep learning curve with this software.
Eldy is software that turns any standard PC into an easy-to-use computer for people that have never used a computer before.
Provides into an easy six buttons interface email, Internet, chat, videoconferencing, documents, pictures, skype. Free Download
Similar to predictive text on a mobile phone, word prediction is also available for typing text on computers. The software program works in the background and “predicts” the words the user intends to type. Can help users who have slow typing speeds, poor spelling or have limited vocabulary. Some commonly used predictive text program are below.
If you have tablets in your internet cafe/computer hub bear in mind keyboards and mice can be connected to tablets.
For iOS (e.g. iPad device)
You can connect a Bluetooth keyboard but not a mouse.
You can connect either a mouse or keyboard. To connect a USB device to your Android device, you’ll need a USB on-the-go cable. A USB OTG cable is an adapter that plugs into the Micro-USB port on your device and allows you to connect full-size USB peripherals. Important Note: Not every Android device supports peripherals with a USB OTG cable. When you connect a mouse to your Android tablet you get a mouse cursor. Keyboards can also be connected via Bluetooth.
Here are a range of suppliers below.
This is a really nice video which introduces Inclusive Design recently published by Microsoft on YouTube. It shows a number of real life examples of Inclusive Design and shows how engaging with the individual is really important for inclusive design.
“If you start with the person they dictate the technology and you arrive at a point where the technology and the person feel so close and so intimate that you don’t actually see the technology anymore”
Graham Pullin author of Design Meets Disability discusses Inclusive Design from the beginnings when it was about the built environment such as the universal right to access particularly public building. Now it has evolved and broaden in several ways. It’s about products, services and to other forms of social participation.
Jutta Treviranus from the Inclusive Design Centre says “Inclusive design is not only about accessibility but a way of allowing and unlocking that participation. Try to be inclusive as possible in terms of who can use the design and make the process inclusive as well. We need designers who have experienced barriers. Disability is socially constructed, it is a mismatch between the needs of the individual and the environment, service or product offered. Anyone can experience a disability when the design, the environment, the attitude or the social structure excludes them from participating and from preforming at their optimum”.
“Diversity is our world’s greatest asset and inclusion is our biggest challenge”
Learn more at www.microsoft.com/design/inclusive .