Do you use or could benefit from assistive technology?
You are invited to participate in a research study entitled ‘ENABLE: Educational eNgagement, Assistive technologies, well-being and quality of Life of students with disabilities in Higher Education.
The overall aim of this study is to examine the experience and effects of assistive technology use among students with disabilities in higher education. Assistive technology can be described as any device which enables individuals to complete or engage with tasks more easily. Participation will involve completing an online survey which will take approximately 30 minutes to complete. You are eligible to participate in this research if you are aged 18 years or older, have a disability, use or could potentially benefit from assistive technology and are a current student in a higher education institution in Ireland.
Don’t miss on this opportunity to contribute to valuable research into AT use by students in Higher Education. If you wish to take part or would like more information, you can access the plain language statement and the survey through the following link:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
Enable Ireland’s Garden, ‘Beyond Boundaries’ was an award winner at Bloom in the Park this year. With a focus very much on Access for All, we wanted to see how we could make the garden more easily accessible to Bloom visitors with vision impairment. So we decided to make a tactile book with a small selection of the plants featured in the garden, printed using a 3 D Printer. Here are the results. We got a lot of really good feedback from visitors, and now the book is located in our Garden Centre in Sandymount, where customers can check it out for themselves.
What do you think of this idea? Have you used 3 D printing to enhance access to other services/facilities? We’d love to learn from your experience!
Tactile book cover with map of Enable Ireland Bloom Garden
Many of us agree that eating is one of life’s pleasures. Sitting down to a delicious meal with cherished friends or family is as about as life-affirming as it gets but what happens if you have a difficulty in eating independently?
Luckily there are a number of products that can assist with eating. A new product called Obi works by automating the movement of the human arm, allowing the user to select food of their choice and dictate the pace at which the food is fed to them.
Obi allows the caregiver to quickly position the device for optimal use and modify the food delivery location for each user.
The Obi plate consists of 4 individual food compartments. The obi arm is controlled by two switches, one switch controls the compartment Obi picks up from and the other switch then picks up the food. The plate can be easily removed and cleaned and is also microwavable. Weighing just over 3 kilos and being equipped with a built-in rechargeable battery means that it can be taken anywhere
Dementia is a term which describes a range of conditions which cause damage to our brain. This damage affects memory, thinking, language and our ability to perform everyday tasks. Although technology may not fix someone’s deficits, it will give them a better quality of life and peace of mind for their family. Assistive technology can help support and enable people with conditions such as dementia to live more independently.
One of the most common technologies that can enable people with dementia to live more independently is a Pendant Alarm. The aim of the pendant alarm is to support an individual living independently by ensuring they are safe while alone. For example if they have a fall or any other major concern they can press the pendant to beckon help. The pendant is typically worn around the neck as a necklace or around the wrist as a watch. The pendant alarm can also signal the presence of a hazard requiring urgent attention, such as high smoke or a carbon monoxide levels, as various sensors can be linked to the pendent alarm system. These devices can be further linked to a Monitoring Centre that operates 24 hours a day seven days a week. If a personal alarm or accompanying sensor is activated, a call is immediately alerted to the 24 hour Monitoring Centre where it will be answered by a trained telecare operator. The internal speaker and microphone on the Pendant Alarm will allow the operator to speak hands free with someone until help arrives. The operator will remain on the line until the situation has been resolved and they are satisfied that the person is back in good hands. In Ireland the cost of a Pendant alarm package is covered by a grant available under the Seniors Alert Scheme. This is open to those over the age of 65, and covers the cost of having a socially monitored alarm installed at home.
A Pendant to activate the alarm is worn around the neck or the wrist. Pendants can be subtle such as the Minute Watch which is discreet high quality watch that incorporates a personal alarm.
Once alarm is activated the centre is contacted which will allow the operator to speak hands free to the client.
Prompts and reminders
An individual with dementia over time may have a decrease in their ability to think and remember, they may need reminders to help them with their daily activities, such as making meals, feeding pets or taking their medication. There are various gadgets currently available which can provide prompts and reminders and generally, make their life a bit easier.
As most people are rarely without their mobile phone, setting up a reminder app could be a useful way to help them remember important things. Some apps worth trying include Wunderlist (free) which lets you create different lists for different topics. Another app which is also useful is called It’s Done!It’s Done is essentially an app that provides a checklist for life’s everyday critical tasks such as locking doors, feeding pets, taking medication, and turning off the stove. This allows you to go back and check your routine everyday tasks if you have forgotten.
If apps are not sufficient for an individual to remember to take their medication then there is the option of a Pill dispenser. Pills can be divided up into days, morning and evening and fitted into their own compartments. An alarm will sound when s/he need to take his pills. Some dispensers can be programmed to only release the set number of pills each time, locking away the rest until they’re needed.
If an individual struggles to remember people’s names, an app called Knome (free)can help by setting up profiles for people the person meets, including pictures and explanations of how they know them.
For those who occasionally misplaces items such as wallet or keys around the home, a key finder will help reduce frustration and disappointment.
The Object Locator is a gadget that offers a simplistic solution. The beepers can be attached to items with the key rings or with Velcro to handbags, or a glasses case. You just press the labelled remote control to activate a beeper.
Maintaining cognitive abilities
Studies have found that playing games which challenge people on reasoning and problem solving can help people over 60 to get on better with their daily activities. In 2006, the ACTIVE Study, funded by National Institute of Health, demonstrated that older adults could improve their brain abilities with the correct training. Certain mental exercises can partially offset the expected decline in older adults’ thinking skills and show promise for maintaining cognitive abilities needed to do everyday tasks.
Both sites feature a combination of cognitive games that are aimed at “exercising” the brain. The games challenge memory and attention by engaging the user in common cognitive and neuropsychological tasks.
Out and about
For individuals who may become lost in familiar places such as their own neighbourhood or village, the installation of a suitable route planner on a Smart Phone may be good idea. It will pick out the best way to get somewhere, or back home again.
Many people may still want to enjoy the freedom of taking their dog out for a walk. Pendant alarms do not typically work outside the range of the home. However an individual’s condition becomes worse an emergency phone such as a Pushphone OK may provide valuable support. This is an emergency phone with GPS for location, Fall monitoring and GEO-fencing.
With the Pushphone OK you can call the number you have stored on the upper two buttons (red and green handset) by pressing the respective button for a longer time. The person who is called can also receive an SMS with the link of the position data.
On the upper right side there is the little red button. This button should be configured for the worst case. The button can be connected to the local ambulance 112.
With the Geofencing (entering a certain radius.) If the person moves out of the given area, a message is sent to the smartphone.)
Microsoft has been making huge strides in the realm of accessibility with each successive update to Windows and have invested in updates to improve the user experience for people with disabilities. The improvements in their Ease of Access features include eye tracking, the narrator, low vision features, and reading and writing improvements.
Eye Control delivers new exciting updates and new tools. For users who can’t use a mouse or keyboard to control their computer, Eye Control presents a convenient entry point to a windows computer using eye-tracking technology. Having access to your computer via Eye Control gives individuals a way to communicate, the ability to stay in the workforce, and so much more!
What began as a hack project during a One Week Hackathon, has become a product concept for the Windows team. Microsoft has introduced Eye Control, which empowers people with disabilities to use a compatible eye tracker, such as a Tobii Eye Tracker, to operate an on-screen mouse, keyboard, and text-to-speech in Windows 10 using only their eyes.
Microsoft Learning Tools
The New Learning Tools capabilities within Microsoft Edge Microsoft Learning Tools are a set of features designed to make it easier for people with learning differences like dyslexia to read. In this update, a user can mow simultaneously highlight and listen to text in web pages and PDF documents to read and increase focus.
Now with the addition of the Immersive Reader functionality of Learning Tools you can photograph a document, export it to immersive reader and immediately use the tools to support your understanding of the text.
Narrator will include the ability to use artificial intelligence to generate descriptions for images that lack alternative text. For websites or apps that don’t have alt-text built in, this feature will provide descriptions of an image. Narrator will now also include the ability to send commands from a keyboard, touch or braille display and get feedback about what the command does without invoking the command. Also, there will be some Braille improvements – Narrator users can type and read using different braille translations. Users can now perform braille input for application shortcuts and modifier keys.
Desktop Magnifier is also getting an option to smooth fonts and images, along with mouse wheel scrolling to zoom in and out. It is now possible to use Magnifier with Narrator, so you can zoom in on text and have it read aloud.
This feature already allowed people to speak into their microphone, and convert using Windows Speech Recognition into text that appears on the screen. In the Windows 10 Update, a person can now use dictation to convert spoken words into text anywhere on your PC
To start dictating, select a text field and press the Windows logo key + H to open the dictation toolbar. Then say whatever’s on your mind.
As well as dictating text, you can also use voice commands to do basic editing or to input punctuation. (English only)
If it’s hard to see what’s on the screen, you can apply a color filter. Color filters change the color palette on the screen and can help you distinguish between things that differ only by color.
To change your color filter, select Start > Settings > Ease of Access > Color & high contrast . Under Choose a filter, select a color filter from the menu. Try each filter to see which one suits you best.
Three weeks to go until our first National Assembly !
FreedomTech National Assembly: Making It Happen
This event is for all stakeholders, including service providers committed to developing innovative supports and interested in exploring how technology can help. We will explore the design and delivery of an effective Ecosystem including the Assistive Technology Passport model. This event is inspired by the 2016 discussion paper developed by Enable Ireland and DFI: ‘Assistive Technology for People with Disabilities and Older People: A Discussion Paper’.
We have an exceptional line-up of local and international speakers including: