Supporting AAC Users

finger pointing on a communication  board

In this time of uncertainty, having access to communication is more important than ever, so that we can all stay informed, ask questions and ease anxieties. We’ve rounded up some of the support that AAC suppliers are offering currently, to support AAC users, their families and professionals. In addition to the below, all companies are offering phone and web support to users, and most are offering online webinars and training.

SafecareTechnologies are offering a 60 days free trial of Snap and Core, for both Windows https://www.tobiidynavox.com/en-GB/software/windows-software/snap/  and iOS https://www.tobiidynavox.com/en-GB/software/ipad-apps/Snap-1. There are also CoronaVirus content pages that can be downloaded https://www.mytobiidynavox.com/psc/snapcorefirst/63829. They are also still offering trails and loans of devices and ensuring that all equipment sent out is sanitised.

Smartbox has a few offers at present – As well as their usual 60 days free trial of the Grid 3 software, they are offering free copies of their software “Look to Read”, sign up at this link https://thinksmartbox.com/news/look-to-read-donations/. They also have some fantastic Coronavirus resources available for their Supercore users but are easily adapted for other users as well https://thinksmartbox.com/news/coronavirus-super-core-resources/. Virtual visits and support are also available.

HelpKidzLearn have 14 day free trials of most of their software and apps and have introduced a new low cost, monthly licence option for their Games and Activities and ChooseItMaker https://www.helpkidzlearn.com/updates/school-closure.html

Boardmaker has a 90 day trial of their Boardmaker Online, sign up here:

https://goboardmaker.com/blogs/news/boardmaker-online-working-from-home

Liberator are offering 2 months free access to the AAC Language Lab https://www.liberator.co.uk/blog/blog/2020/03/26/2-months-free-access-to-the-aac-language-lab/

Tobii Dynavox also have fantastic low tech communication chart options for people who might be in hospital – available in symbol format https://download.mytobiidynavox.com/MyTobiiDynavox/Documentation/Coronavirus/CV-US/ICU%20Communication%20Board%20-%20ENGLISH%20%28US%29%20WITH%20SYMBOLS.pdf  and text https://download.mytobiidynavox.com/MyTobiiDynavox/Documentation/Coronavirus/CV-US/ICU%20Communication%20Board%20-%20ENGLISH%20%28US%29.pdf

Autism Awareness 2020

April is Autism Awareness Month, and during this time, some suppliers offer discounts and special offers. Some extend for the entire month, others for just a few days, so get in quick if you want to take advantage!

Avaz is offering a 50% discount for the full month on the following products:

  • Avaz AAC : An award-winning communication app for users with speech difficulties arising from ASD, Cerebral Palsy, Downs Syndrome, aphasia, apraxia, strokes & more MDA
  • Avaz Reader : Education app that enables struggling readers become independent readers using research backed strategies.
  • Avaz FreeSpeech : An education app that makes learning English Grammar fun & easy for children with special needs

For more information, please see: https://www.avazapp.com/blog/autism-acceptance-month-discount-april-1-to-april-30-2020/?utm_source=ticker

Assistiveware have a 50% off promotion from today (2nd April) to the 4th of April on the following apps for iOS and software for Macs :

  • Proloquo2Go: a symbol based AAC, completely customisable and designed for a range of fine-motor and visual skills. Available as an app and software.
  • Proloquo4Text: a text based AAC system, with intuitive word and sentence prediction. Available as an app and software
  • Pictello: an app for creating visual stories and visual schedules, building literacy skills
  • Keeble: an accessible iOS keyboard, that can take the place of the standard keyboard, and helps individuals with physical or visual impairments.

Please see https://www.assistiveware.com/blog/discount-celebrating-autism-acceptance-month for more information.

PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System from Pyramid Educational Consultants) are offering a 15% discount on products purchased from their Resources shop with the code “pecs20” until the end of June 2020. https://pecs-unitedkingdom.com/store/. They also have a discount on their range of apps, valid for the month of April 2020, including ( PECS® IV+, PECS® Phase III, iHear PECS®: Animals™, Wait4it™, and Working4™) . Please see https://pecs-unitedkingdom.com/apps/ for further information.

Liberator have a 50% discount on the LAMP Words for Life app available from the 1st to 5th April. LAMP (Language acquisition through Motor Planning) is a therapeutic approach to using AAC with nonverbal individuals with Autism. Please click on the link for more information: https://mailchi.mp/liberator.co.uk/lampsale2020-847749?e=6bb0526a2b

We will add more special promotions as we become aware of them!

Creative use of technology during Covid 19 pandemic

Featured

Posted on March 25th 2020 by Siobhan Long

Using technology to support people with disabilities, their families and those who support them during the Covid 19 pandemic

Some initial suggestions

Note: This is an evolving ideas post which we encourage you to contribute to: together we can be creative in how we use technology to support people with disabilities who may be feeling isolated and worried, and we can also consider innovative ways of remote working to benefit all.

This is already a very worrying time for people with disabilities, being constantly reminded that they are in a high-risk group when it comes to Covid 19. With schools and services shut down, how can we use technology to facilitate communication, prevent people feeling isolated and maybe provide some kind of distraction?

Disclaimer: By means of this website, Enable Ireland provides information concerning accessing and using technology. Every reasonable effort has been made to ensure that the information provided by this website is reasonably comprehensive, accurate and clear. However, the information provided on or via this website may not necessarily be completely comprehensive or accurate, and, for this reason, it is provided on an “AS IS” and “AS AVAILABLE” basis. Each individual or organisation accessing and relying on the information shared should carry out their own review of the suggestions we make from a legal and regulatory point of view.If you think you may have noticed any error or omission, please let us know by contacting Siobhan Long at: slong@enableireland.ie. It is our policy to correct errors or omissions as soon as any error or omission has been established to our satisfaction.

WhatsApp or Viber Groups

This is something most of us use and find very useful. Disability services could set up a group/groups and use them as a way to keep communication open while people are at home.

WhatsApp is very accessible as it allows people to contribute to a group chat using recorded Video or Audio or text. It’s a good way to share jokes and funny stories and keep morale up. It supports individual and groups (up to 4) video and audio calls.

Advantages

  • Accessible (to many)
  • Familiar

Disadvantages

  • Needs a smartphone, computer or tablet.
  • Only supports groups up to 4 in real-time calls or video
  • Your privacy is not guaranteed using these forums

Echo Dot or Echo Show

For some people, speech is the easiest way for them to access technology. The Amazon Alexa powered devices can be a very intuitive way of getting information, entertainment (music, radio, audiobooks adventure games). They also support a feature called “Drop-in”. When setting up a device you can add friends or contacts who also have Echo devices and allow them to “Drop-in”. This could provide a good means of keeping contact with people who may not be comfortable enough with technology to use a smartphone or WhatsApp. It works basically like an intercom. The person being dropped in on does not have to do anything other than answer, no buttons to press or commands are needed. It’s like talking to them if they were in the room with you. The Echo Show (only £50 on Amazon at the moment) has a screen and camera also. We are not sure if you can Drop-in with video of if you need to use a video calling service. (Maybe someone reading this already knows the answer?)

Advantages

  • Very easy to use natural speech interface.
  • Lots of entertainment options
  • Can open communication channels in a natural way with user input

Disadvantages

  • GDPR/Privacy/Consent considerations are an issue as you may not receive the privacy you expect

Video Conferencing

MICROSOFT TEAMS

Microsoft Teams is a hub for teamwork in Office 365. It is currently free to download and use, during this Covid 19 pandemic. It is most likely to be initially at least, most useful to staff, as there is a degree of learning and familiarization involved: Here’s an introductory video illustrating how Teams works.

SKYPE

Skype should be familiar with being the original voice and video calling service. Perhaps not as popular as it once was it is still used by many people. Once someone is set up and signed in it should be easy enough to navigate. Skype is keyboard accessible, which will allow us to use alternative input methods or create a simplified interface using software like the Grid 3. Unfortunately, Skype no longer supports games like checkers and chess but it is still a good option especially if people are already using it.

ZOOM

Currently free, the video conferencing tool Zoom is a great way of bringing larger groups together via video. It supports all the main platforms (Windows iOS, Android and macOS). It’s quite an easy app to use and is free to install and use for up to 40 minutes. This could be used to bring everyone together at a certain time every day and would be probably the best way of simulating the atmosphere people would be familiar with within the services they normally attend. When hosting a meeting, you can select ‘share screen only’ to ensure that there is no potential for making any changes to attendees’ own devices. Without selecting this feature, it would be possible to remotely access devices, and this is something that would require written/recorded consent.

Note: Corporate IT Departments may have concerns re: this solution as they may not have any prior agreement with them. So for service providers, best to check with their IT and Data Protection officer before considering it.

Advantages

  • Free and relatively easy to use
  • Supports large group video calls
  • Great casting tool

Disadvantages

  • GDPR concerns given your privacy is not guaranteed
  • Requires a computer or mobile device
  • Will be new and unfamiliar to most (all)

FaceBook Groups

Enable Ireland Communications Department have created guidelines for designated staff authorised to start Facebook Groups for the purpose of communicating with clients and their family’s. These guidelines offer some do’s and don’t in regard to moderating these groups and suggest the appropriate privacy settings that need to be applied. You can request a copy of this document from our Communications Department.

communication@enableireland.ie

Set up an Internet Radio Station

There are services that allow you to create an online radio station (for example https://radio.co/). This would be a great way of keeping people in touch with news and entertainment custom made for a specific audience. Rotate DJs between services, have chats, play music, share the news. Bit of a mad idea but could be fun for everyone. If a live radio channel is a bit of a stretch we could maybe produce a daily podcast. Get people to record introduction to songs on their phones and send us the audio. Record thoughts, news, jokes, and we can try to put it all together and send out a link for everyone to listen. Video could also be used and make private links on YouTube.

Advantages

  • Accessible to (almost) all as listeners
  • Offers opportunity to be a producer as well as consumer of news/entertainment
  • All content curated by surface users

Disadvantages

  • Totally new to us, not sure of the requirements for setting it up but happy to hear from others more familiar, and happy to try it out.

Watch Together

YouTube is very popular and supports synchronised watching of YouTube videos and real-time chat.

https://www.watch2gether.com/?lang=en

Online Games

There are lots of games available online that allow you to invite friends to play remotely. Why not curate and manage a range? Suited to Draughts, Battleship, Ludo, Scrabble, Chess although younger players might be more interested in Fortnite

Advantages

  • Many of these games will be familiar to people already
  • Great distraction; Start a league!

Disadvantages

  • Many of the sites that offer these games are funded by advertising and can be difficult to navigate (auto-playing videos, links to products, flashing ads designed to trick people into clicking on them. This is not an insurmountable problem but it would be a good bit of work identifying appropriate platforms. iOS might be better.

Virtual photo walks

This is a lovely idea we came across. The original uses Google Hangouts but any video conferencing app would work.

Books – reading, looking and listening audio books

Story Weaver https://storyweaver.org.in/ is an open platform for the creation and distribution of books aimed at children under 16. Although a lot of the content has been created by and for other cultures & languages with almost 20,000 currently in the catalogue there should be plenty of interest there. The real potential with this site, however, is creating your own richly illustrated books with their easy to use web app.

Audio Books are hugely popular, they are accessible and can be consumed while completing other activities like your daily.  Audible (free for 30 days and linked to Echo/Amazon/Kindle) is the big name with the largest catalogue. 

Bookshare Ireland is available for people with visual or print disabilities. You can also download Audio Books or eBooks from your local library https://www.librariesireland.ie/elibrary/eaudiobooks.

Do you have a nice voice, or rather has anybody else ever told you have a nice voice? If so and you have a good quality microphone why not volunteer for https://librivox.org/. The Librivox project has been creating high-quality audiobooks from all public domain literature for a number of years. There is a huge selection to download and listen to as well as for instructions on how to begin creating your own.


Webinars

AbilityNet

 https://abilitynet.org.uk/free-resources/webinars  have a webinar in conjunction with the UK Stroke Association next week. They are also planning weekly webinars (Tuesdays and Wednesdays) over the next month. https://abilitynet.org.uk/news-blogs/abilitynet-live-free-events-about-technology-and-disability

AHEAD

 https://www.ahead.ie/conference2020  have moved their conference online, with a series of webinars over the next 10 weeks, starting this afternoon and tomorrow. They also have an archive of past webinars https://www.ahead.ie/Digital-Accessibility-Webinar-Series

AbleNet

 https://www.ablenetinc.com/resources/live_webinars have some webinars scheduled over the coming weeks, but also have access to a large bank of recorded webinars at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCnqbFTy0VIQ6fVxXY2HiOJw/videos

Perkins Learning

has some prerecorded webinars https://www.perkinselearning.org/videos/webinar/assistive-technology

Call Scotland

also have scheduled and archived webinars available https://www.callscotland.org.uk/professional-learning/webinars/

Pacer

have cancelled a lot of their webinars for April/May https://www.pacer.org/workshops/ but they have an extensive list of archived webinars – https://www.pacer.org/webinars/archive-listing.asp

Shane Hastings Giveback Directory of free products / services available during COVID-19

Education (26)

Business Resources (9)

Health & Wellbeing (17)

Sports (7)

Entertainment (6)

Music (8)

Technology (7)

As mentioned, this is just for starters: if we all think creatively we can harness technology in many ways to support service users and staff through this difficult time. Please contact us with your suggestions and we’ll add them to this document. Thanks!

And check out Enable Ireland’s National Assistive Technology Training Service’s free online content on Assistive Technology for Creative Expression: on enableirelandat.com

Stay safe and well, and please share/respond/add your own suggestions/ideas. We’re all better together:) Or as we say in Ireland, Ní neart go cur le céile

Siobhan, Karl, Juliann, Sean and Shirley: The Enable Ireland AT Team

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

Mouse Access for iPad is here

person using a joystick mouse to control an iPad

Until now, people with significant physical disabilities could only operate an iPad or iPhone by switch control. With AMAneo BTi it is possible for the first time to operate an iPad or iPhone directly with any mouse or assistive mouse including a trackball, joystick, head mouse or thumb mouse, and even a wheelchair joystick.  The AMAneo BTi also has some very useful built-in features such as tremor filter, dwell click and 2 jack plugs for external switches.

Simply connect the AMAneo BTi to your iPad or iPhone via Bluetooth and the pointer will automatically appear on your device’s screen, with no additional App required. This allows the user to navigate around the screen and interact with a mouse to connect with friends, browse the internet, and play games.


For more information about the AMAneo BTi https://csslabs.de/amaneo-bti

Supplier Inclusive Technology.

The good:   operate an iPad or iPhone directly with any mouse or assistive mouse.

The not so good: Can’t connect Bluetooth mouse directly to device.

The verdict: This is a long awaited feature for Apple devices that now give a new user experience for people with significant physical disabilities.

Control your mobile phone, PC or TV with your wheelchair joystick

Have you ever considered controlling your computer or mobile devices with your wheelchair joystick?

As well as the basic wheelchair functions such as driving, the CJSM2 –BT also enables control of a computer or mobile devices and so the integration of environmental controls is possible.  The same controls that the user drives the power wheelchair with, typically a joystick, can also be used to control an appliance within their environment.

For example for chairs with R-net controls you can replace the old joystick with a CJSM2 –BT as seen in the video below. This R-net Joystick Module has Infra-Red (IR) capabilities included. IR technology is widely used to remotely control household devices such as TVs, DVD players, and multi-media systems, as well as some home-automation equipment. Individual IR commands can be learned from an appliance’s remote handset and stored in the CJSM2.

Integrated Bluetooth technology is also an option, to enable control of computers, Android tablets, iPads, iPhones and other smart devices from a powered wheelchair. To switch between the devices, the user simply navigates the menu and selects the device they wish to control. The R-net’s CJSM2 can easily replace an existing R-net joystick module, with no system re-configuration or programming required.

As well as Curtiss-Wright’s R-net controls, other wheelchair controller manufacturers have Bluetooth mouse options too, including Dynamics Controls with their Linx controller and Curtis instrument’s quantum q-logic controller.

Beyond Boundaries: How Interactive and Immersive Media are being used to support people with autism

This is the first in a two part post about Enable Ireland’s Immersive Media Beyond Boundaries Garden project. If you want to try the apps for yourself you can get them from Google Play here or there are links and some more information on our website here. This first post (Part 1) will give a brief background to Virtual Reality and related technologies and look at some of the research into its potential in the area of autism. Part 2 of the post will outline how we put our Beyond Boundaries and SecretGarden apps together and how we hope to incorporate this technology into future training and use it to support clients of our service.

Background: VR, AR, Mixed Media, 360 Video?

Virtual Reality, referred to as the acronym VR, is one of those technologies that is perpetually “the next big thing”. If you grew up looking at movies like Tron and The Lawnmower Man (giving away my age here), VR is probably filed away in your brain somewhere between hoverboards (that actually hover) and teleportation. When the concept of a technology has been part of popular culture so far in advance of the capability of its realisation, it can hinder rather than promote its development. The trajectory the evolution of VR has taken however is much closer to a technology like Speech Recognition than hoverboards. VR, as with Speech Recognition, saw a great deal of progress in the latter part of the 1980s. With both technologies, although important, this progress was almost nullified by the hype surrounding and subsequent commercialisation of a technology that clearly wasn’t ready for the public consumption. The reality of what VR could offer at the time led to people becoming disillusioned with the technology.

Before I talk about how VR is being used in the area of autism it’s worth clarifying what exactly is meant by some of the terms that are being used. As an emerging technology there is still quite a lot of confusion around what is meant by Virtual Reality and associated technologies; Augmented Reality (AR), Mixed Reality, Immersive Media and 360 Video. First let’s look at the video below which explains what VR and AR are and how they differ.

So what is Mixed Reality? Well in short Mixed Reality is a combination of VR and AR, in theory offering the best of both. Mixed Reality is also closely associated with Microsoft and other Windows aligned hardware manufacturers. Have a look at the short video below.

360 degree Video and Photography are less interactive than the technologies discussed above. The viewer is also restricted in terms of movement, they can only view the scene from the position the camera was placed. Movement can be simulated to some extent however through the use of hotspots or menus, allowing them to navigate between different scenes. More traditional film techniques like fading between scenes can also be used as in the video below. 360 Degree can be either flat or in stereo. Stereo video or 3D video is captured with a camera that has 2 lens about the same distance apart as a person’s eyes. Each eye then gets a slightly different view which our brain stitch together as a 3D image.

Finally Immersive Media is frequently used as an umbrella term for all the technologies discussed above but would more correctly refer to the less interactive 360 Video and Photography.

Immersive Media and Autism

Since the early days of the technology people have proposed that VR may offer potential as a therapeutic or training tool within the area of neurodiversity. Dorothy Strickland of North Carolina State University’s short paper “Two Case Studies Using Virtual Reality As A Learning Tool For Autistic Children” (Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Vol. 26, No. 6, 1996) is generally accepted as being the first documented use of VR as a tool to increase the capabilities of someone with a disability. In this early study (which you can read at the link above) VR was used as a means to teach the children how to safely cross the street. While VR technology itself has clearly moved on, for the reasons outlined above, its use in this area (up until recently) has not and there is still a great deal about this paper that is relevant today. In particular regarding the children’s acceptance of the headset (which would have been chunkier and more uncomfortable than todays) and their understanding of the 3D world presented by it.

Stepping forward almost a quarter of a century and we are riding the peak of the second wave of commercial VR. Thanks largely to developments made due to the rapid evolution of mobile device in the early years of this decade, VR is becoming more accessible and less disappointing than it was first time around. With the new generation of headsets and their ability to render sharp and detailed 3D environments has come a renewed interest in the use of VR in the area of autism.  At a recent CTD Institute webinar on this very subject (Virtual Reality and Assistive Technology) Jaclyn Wickham (@JacWickham), a teacher turned technologist and founder of AcclimateVR outlined some of the reasons why VR could be an appropriate technology to provide training for some people on the autistic spectrum. These included the ability to create a safe and controlled environment where tasks can be practiced and repeated. How the VR experience puts emphases on the visual and auditory senses (with the ability to configure and control both presumably). How you can create an individualised experience and that there are many non-verbal interaction possibilities. Anecdotally this all makes complete sense but we are in the early days and much of the research is still being conducted.

A leading researcher in this area is Dr Nigel Newbutt (@Newbutt) who in June of this year published a short but enlightening update about his progress working with children from Mendip School in the UK. After seeing him present at Doctrid V conference in 2017 I can assure you that progress in this area is being made but even he acknowledges more work is needed. “Our research suggests that head-mounted displays might be a suitable space in which to develop specific interventions and opportunities; to practice some skills people with autism might struggle with in the real world. We’re seeking further funding to address this important question – one that has eluded this field to date.” (Full interview here: From apps to robots and VR: How technology is helping treat autism)

The commercial offerings in the area of VR and Autism (Floreo and AcclimateVR) tend to concentrate on providing a virtual space where basic life skills can be practiced. Another use is as a form of exposure therapy where immersive video and audio of environments and situations are used as a means of preparing someone for the real life experience. You can see examples of both in action at the links above.

Within Enable Ireland AT service our own VR journey was spurred on by a visit and demonstration from James Corbett (@JamesCorbett) of SimVirtua. James could be considered a real pioneer in this area and had in fact met with us previously almost 10 years ago to show us some work he was doing with non-immersive virtual environments (without headsets) in schools. SimVirtua had worked on a Mindfulness VR app called MindMyths and it was this idea of providing a retreat or sanctuary using immersive video that inspired us when it came to working on the Bloom Beyond Boundaries Garden project.

In the second part of this post (coming soon) I’ll give some background to what we hoped to achieve with the Beyond Boundaries garden project and some technical information on how we put it together.

Tobii buys SmartBox – What might this mean for computer access and AAC?

Big news (in the AT world anyway) may have arrived in your mail box early last week. It was announced that leading AAC and Computer Access manufacturer Tobii purchased SmartBox AT (Sensory Software), developers of The Grid 3 and Look2Learn. As well as producing these very popular software titles, SmartBox were also a leading supplier of a range of AAC and Computer Access hardware, including their own GridPad and PowerPad ranges. Basically (in this part of the world at least) they were the two big guns in this area of AT, between them accounting for maybe 90% of the market. An analogy using soft drink companies would be that this is like Coca-Cola buying Pepsi.

Before examining what this takeover (or amalgamation?) means to their customers going forward it is worth looking back at what each company has historically done well. This way we can hopefully provide a more optimistic future for AT users rather than the future offered by what might be considered a potential monopoly.

Sensory Software began life in 2000 from the spare bedroom of founder Paul Hawes. Paul had previously worked for AbilityNet and had 13 years’ experience working in the area of AT. Early software like GridKeys and The Grid had been very well received and the company continued to grow. In 2006 they setup Smartbox to concentrate on complete AAC systems while sister company Sensory Software concentrated on developing software. In 2015 both arms of the company joined back together under the SamrtBox label. By this time their main product, the Grid 3, had established itself as a firm favourite with Speech and Language Therapists (SLT), for the wide range of communication systems it supported and Occupational Therapists and AT Professionals for its versatility in providing alternative input options to Windows and other software. Many companies would have been satisfied with providing the best product on the market however there were a couple of other areas where SmartBox also excelled. They may not have been the first AT software developers to harness the potential resources of their end users (they also may have been, I would need to research that further) but they were certainly the most successful. They succeeded in creating a strong community around the Grid 2 & 3 with a significant proportion of the online grids available to download being user generated. Their training and support was also second to none. Regular high quality training events were offered throughout Ireland and the UK. Whether by email, phone or the chat feature on their website their support was always top quality also. Their staff clearly knew their product inside out, responses were timely and they were always a pleasure to deal with.

Tobii have been around since 2001. The Swedish firm actually started with eyegaze, three entrepreneurs – John Elvesjö, Mårten Skogö and Henrik Eskilsson recognised the potential of eye tracking as an input method for people with disabilities. In 2005 they released the MyTobii P10, the world’s first computer with built-in eye tracking (and I’ve no doubt there are still a few P10 devices still in use). What stood out about the P10 was the build quality of the hardware, it was built like a tank. While Tobii could be fairly criticized for under specifying their all-in-one devices in terms of Processor and Memory, the build quality of their hardware is always top class. Over the years Tobii have grown considerably, acquiring Viking Software AS (2007), Assistive Technology Inc. (2008) and DynaVox Systems LLC (2014). They have grown into a global brand with offices around the world. As mentioned above, Tobii’s main strength is that they make good hardware. In my opinion they make the best eye trackers and have consistently done so for the last 10 years. Their AAC software has also come on considerably since the DynaVox acquisition. While Communicator always seemed to be a pale imitation of the Grid (apologies if I’m being unfair, but certainly true in terms of its versatility and ease of use for computer access) it has steadily being improving. Their newer Snap + Core First AAC software has been a huge success and for users just looking for communication solution would be an attractive option over the more expensive (although much fuller featured) Grid 3. Alongside Snap + Core they have also brought out a “Pathways” companion app. This app is designed to guide parents, care givers and communication partners in best practices for engaging Snap + Core First users. It supports the achievement of communication goals through video examples, lesson plans, interactive goals grid for tracking progress, and a suite of supporting digital and printable materials. A really useful resource which will help to empower parents and prove invaluable to those not lucky enough to have regular input from an SLT.

To sum things up. We had two great companies, both with outstanding products. I have recommended the combination of the Grid software and a Tobii eye tracker more times than I remember. The hope is that Tobii can keep the Grid on track and incorporate the outstanding support and communication that was always an integral part of SmartBox’s operation. With the addition of their hardware expertise and recent research driven progress in the area of AAC, there should be a lot to look forward to in the future.

If you are a Grid user and you have any questions or concerns about this news, true to form, the communication lines are open. There is some information at this link and at the bottom of the page you can submit your question.

Smart door locks

Most smart locks are installed on mechanical locks such as deadbolts.  They typically upgrade the ordinary lock. Recently, there have been a number of smart locks that have appeared on the market that provide the convenience of being able to lock and unlock your door from anywhere, or passing on to people you trust a passcode to open the door.

Smart locks, like the traditional locks, need two main parts to work: the lock and the key. In the case of these electronic locks, the key is a smartphone or a special key fob configured explicitly for this purpose which wirelessly performs the authentication needed to automatically unlock the door.  With some smart locks, the physical key may still be used in case the batteries of the lock have run too low.  Generally, the smart door locks operate with 4 AA batteries, so no hard wiring is required.

Most smart locks will feature access by entering a code, instead of fumbling for keys.  It is easy to share access with trusted friends/family. They are battery-operated and so should still accept access codes on the touchscreen during home power outages.  They all claim to be easy to install with just a screwdriver (providing holes for the lock are already installed in the door).

Smart Lock manufacturers generally have their own app to set up and control the door locks but can often be controlled by other smartphone apps such as Samsung Smartthings or will work with Apple HomeKit, which is software on Apple iOS devices that lets users configure and control smart-home appliances.

Some locks you can use hands-free voice control with Amazon Alexa-enabled devices or Google Assistant-enabled devices.  This includes verbally locking or checking the status of the front door.  This may require the addition of a wifi adaptor for the lock.

Smart locks can be used with a smart doorbell to allow the user to see or communicate with someone at a door before unlocking.  These are now mainstream products, available in computer and online stores.  These types of products can help support independent living for people with disabilities.

Below is a range of the newer smart door locks.

Nest x Yale Lock

Nest x Yale Lock on a red door

With Yale known for their locks and Nest known for their connected home, they have come together to make a key‑free deadbolt that connects to the Nest app. As with many smart locks you can lock and unlock your door from anywhere or give people you trust a passcode, instead of a key.

When the Nest/Yale Lock is connected to the Nest app, you can unlock your door from your phone or create passcodes for family and guests. Even set times when passcodes expire. You can get alerts whenever someone unlocks and locks the door. And when Nest knows you’re away, your door can lock automatically.

Yale Real Living® Touchscreen Deadbolt

Yale Real Living Touchscreen Deadbolt on a door

The absence of the cylinder provides a “clean” appearance and means that lock picking will be difficult. It eliminates the need to manage keys for your door.

In the event the batteries die – a 9V battery provides enough power to enter the code and gain access to the lock.

The touchscreen keypad illuminates for night time access.

It is available in ZigBee® or Z-Wave® configurations

More information

Schlage Sense™ Smart Deadbolt

Schlage Sense Smart Deadbolt, ourdoor part

As with all the smart locks, the Schlage Sense Smart Deadbolt claims to be easily installed with just a screwdriver.  It has a pre-set, unique 6 digit programming code, and a capacity for 30 access code (4-8 digits)

What makes it different from the other smart locks is that it features a built-in alarm to sense potential door attacks.

It works with Apple HomeKit. With the Schlage Sense Wi-Fi Adapter plugged into an outlet within the home and connected to the home Wi-Fi, you can lock/unlock from anywhere using an iPhone or Android smartphone.

You can use your lock hands-free, through voice control with Amazon Alexa-enabled devices like Amazon Echo and Dot if you pair your Schlage Sense WiFi Adapter with your Schlage Sense lock. Learn more about Alexa features here and similar to Alexa, you’ll be able to use hands-free voice control with Google Assistant-enabled devices like Google Home.

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Kwikset’s SmartCode electronic locks

Kwikset’s SmartCode electronic lock on a door

This electronic lock features a battery-operated keypad or touchscreen, eliminating the need for keys. Enter your home with a unique access code or lock your door with the touch of a button.

Kwikset’s SmartCode electronic locks offer a touchscreen and touchpad for a keyless entry that fits on any standard door.  Z-wave and ZigBee options available.  The touchpad with buttons may have the advantage that it consists of raised buttons for someone with a visual impairment.  The back-lit keypad provides increased visibility.

The SmartCode touchpad smart lock with Home Connect technology enables the lock to wirelessly communicate with other devices in the home. The lock allows the user (through a third-party smart home controller) to remotely check the door lock status, lock or unlock the door and receive notifications via email or text.  Kwikset say SmartCode is easy to install, program and use.  It operates on 4 AA batteries. It also features SmartKey Security as the back-up keyway.

Learn more