Text production – Keeping focused and removing distractions

These days when it comes to writing a document most of us go straight to our computer. In the area of literacy support there are many advantages to using a computer for text production: spelling and grammar support, word prediction, speech recognition etc. However in this post I want to look at the disadvantage. Thanks to the web, the computer gives us access to limitless information resources while at the same time it is also the source of limitless distractions. Although this is a problem faced by everybody (or at least the weak willed among us) reducing the availability of distractions can be beneficial to some people with literacy difficulties who find text production more arduous. Below are a couple of products that attempt to offer the advantages of physical keyboard input, word processing and web connectivity without the potential for distraction that usually accompanies the latter. Both could be loosely called Smart Typewriters and also offer advantages over modern laptops or tablets in areas like battery life and durability. If buying an new device is not practical or perhaps a bit over the top, at the end of the post I’ll look at some browser plugins and apps that aim to achieve the same result without the need of abandoning you primary computing device.

alphasmart neo2 word processor. looks like a black keyboard with a small grey screen

The AlphaSmart Neo 2 (pictured above) is the most recent in a line of smart typewriters that were favoured both in classrooms and by professional writers and journalists for many years. It offers accessibility features like Sticky Keys and Slow Keys, Spellchecker, Typing Tutor and they claim it can sync with Google Docs (I wasn’t aware of this until now and can’t confirm it). This device was last updated in 2010 and discontinued by the manufacturer in 2013 yet I suggest it is far from obsolete. They are available on Ebay for about €25, even less if bought in bulk. It will last up to a year on 3 AA batteries and is tough enough to take quite a bit of punishment.

FreeWrite smart typewriter. White keyboard and e-ink screen at the top displaying some text

It was coming across this new product, the FreeWrite that actually got me thinking about the AlphaSmart Neo above. FreeWrite (pictured above) is a similar product except offering a (much) better keyboard, better screen and more current online syncing capabilities (Google Drive, Evernote, Dropbox currently). Details are a little sketchy on whether the FreeWrite offers keyboard accessibility features like Sticky Keys or Slow Keys or even word processing capabilities like a Spellchecker or thesaurus. However one advantage concerning accessibility it has over the AlphaSmart is that it does offer the ability to adjust the font size and a larger screen to accommodate this. The FreeWrite isn’t cheap (available for pre-order at over €550) but it looks like a quality product (the Cherry mechanical keyboard would be a joy to use and the e-ink screen will offer your eyes a much needed break from the glaring display as well as being usable in direct sunlight). I’ll update this when (or if) they come back to me about the accessibility features, without which I fear this product will remain an object of desire for hipsters and professional writers and of no practical use to many of us.

Update: FreeWrite got back to me with the following reply.

“there are no plans for a spellchecker or other accessibility features but that doesn’t mean they won’t be added by us or someone else in the future. The Freewrite is a platform that we are opening up to developers so we expect that it will be extended and modified. We’d love to support you and the needs of a lot more people!”.

I find this both disappointing and exciting at the same time. It’s a completely understandable approach for a new company launching a niche product. Do you put  resources into implementing accessibility features? or do you put them into creating the best platform possible and leave it open for other developers to adapt and build functionality. It’s like iOS v Android. Keep an eye on FreeWrite.

If leaving the computer isn’t an option or your preference, techniques like time-boxing (Pomodoro) can help you to keep focused. As can removing visual distractions, creating consistent background noise or if all else fails removing temptation by actually blocking sites. Below are some apps and plugins that might be useful in this area.

  • FocusWriter – simple, distraction-free writing environment with additional tools like timers, daily goals and sound effects
  • StayFocused – increases productivity by limiting time that spent on time-wasting websites
  • Strict Workflow – 25min/5min workflow (Pomodoro): 25 minutes of distraction-free work, 5 minutes of break.
  • Background sounds and white noise – does what it says..

Universal design and digital divide: Conference addresses strategies to reduce barriers

The Universal Design in Education Conference and ENTELIS Reducing the Digital Divide: the Role of Education Seminar is to take place in Dublin on November 12 and 13.

With continued increased technology and a rapidly changing society, digital divide has become an issue that requires addressing. Digital divide is the gap of access and opportunities to new technology between regions and demographics. This is due, in part, to lack of universally designed products as well as services not being accessible to some populations to make best use of technology. This conference looks deeper into the issue of using universal design principles, user empowerment and ICT-AT training to remove barriers. It will provide an introduction to strategies and good practices in reducing barriers to create a more inclusive digital world.

Topics of the conference include: empowering lives through technology, design for social innovation, emotional design at core of universal design for learning, and distance education in the context of mobility, digitization and technology.

The Universal Design in Education conference costs €60, but the Reducing the Digital Divide Seminar is free with registration. Both events require separate registration. Registration details can be found at http://education.universaldesign.ie/#link-12739 and https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1PA9i_VYCnE2Mk8Y4a0dwVrzbONBzNAJJQ7EJTI05E7c/viewform

Universal design in the home

No two people are the same and no two people have exactly the same ability.  For this reason a universal design approach to the way we design our products, services and environments is essential.  Universal Design creates inclusive design solutions and promotes accessibility and usability, allowing people with all levels of ability to live independently.

As we spend much of our time within our homes, it make sense to have our homes designed in a way that meets the needs of all those that will live in it.  People are diverse, some are left-handed and some right-handed and vary in their age, size and functional abilities.

The Universal Design Living Laboratory is a really interesting home or project located in a suburb of Ohio, USA.   It is the home of Rosemarie Rossetti and her husband Mark who decided to create a custom home to suit their needs and serve as both a showcase of Universal Design products and a real-life laboratory to test out how Universal Design features work in a home over time.  The motivation for the home came about after Rosemarie’s needs change after an accident.  Rosemarie uses a wheelchair and Mark stands over 6ft tall.

Follow Mark, as he describes some of the universal design features that are incorporated into his home (Universal Design Living Laboratory).

Rosemarie shares some universal design storage tips.


In summary, some of the main universal design features are as follows;
Within the kitchen there are multiple height counters and plenty of manoeuvring space.
kitchen with multiple height counters

Pull-out storage makes reaching items easier.

Pull-out storage

The oven and microwave are mounted in the lower cabinets and have side-hinged doors that make reaching the food easier.

oven and microwave are mounted in the lower cabinets

A raised dishwasher provides wheelchair accessibility and eliminates the need for standing users to stoop.

Disk washer at raised height

A pot-filler faucet is located near the cooktop and in-counter steamer, eliminating the need to carry heavy water-filled pots to the stove.A pot-filler faucet is located near the cooktop and in-counter steamer

A Side-by-side style refrigerator/freezer lets seated users access both areas easily.

A Side-by-side style refrigerator and freezer

A pull-out cart provides flexibility between under counter storage and knee clearance.

A pull-out cart between under counter storage

Within the shower a Roll-in shower area includes trench drains, seats, and hand-held sprayers.Roll in shower

A large ledge around the bath facilities transferring in and out.  Glass block mosaic brings in light while maintaining privacy.A large ledge around the tub facilities transferring in and out

Sinks at different heights helps to accommodate different users

sinks at different height

Wheelchair accessible pathways are installed in the garden, which includes raised plant beds.Wheelchair accessible pathways installed a garden which includes raised plant beds

Other universal design features include

  • Step-free entrance
  • All doors without thresholds that are wide enough for a wheelchair or walker (36”)
  • Wider hallways (46 “)
  • Lever handles on doors and faucets
  • Full extension drawers and shelves in kitchen base cabinets
  • Cooktop set into a counter with open knee space
  • Casement windows
  • Lower rocker style light switches (36” above the floor)
  • Higher electrical outlets (25” above the floor)
  • Large bathroom with decorative grab bars
  • Wood, non-slip tile and a dense weave, low pile (< ½”) carpet floors
  • Large bathtubs with plenty of grab bars
  • Curbless roll in showers with plenty of grab bars
  • Slide bar for shower head
  • Hand-held, flexible shower fixture
  • 17-19” high toilet seats
  • Adjustable hanging closet rods and shelves
  • Front loading washer and dryer
  • Open knee space under all sinks

For further reading on Universal Design you might be interested in:
The Centre for Excellence in Universal Design
The Center for Universal Design (CUD)

‘Universal Design’ – what is it and how can it address ageing?

The National Museum of Ireland, Dublin are hosting a public talk about ‘Universal Design’ – what is it and how can it address ageing.

Sunday 24th May 2015
3 – 4pm

Image of non conformist chair

Join Enable Ireland and Bernard Timmins (DIT) at this participative event. The focus will be on the design of everyday household objects and how their design can be improved to match the needs of older users.
Booking essential, admission free.
E: bookings@museum.ie

The National Museum of Ireland

Universal Design Grand Challenge 2015

27th March

Deadline for students to enter their design ideas.

The Universal Design Grand Challenge is a design competition that promotes and awards Universal Design excellence in Ireland. The UDGC invites third level students to enter student projects that demonstrate concepts and designs that are easy to use for a wide range of people.

Entering the competition

The Universal Design Grand Challenge 2015 Student Awards is open to ALL third level students in their final two years of study, post grads and recent graduates from a wide range of disciplines including architecture, landscape architecture, engineering (all disciplines), computer science, multi-media, web design, graphic design, product design, innovation and design. Entries from individuals or teams welcome.

1. Download and complete the UDGC Expression of Interest (Word doc, 1mb) and email it in to info@ceud.ie (You will be sent the UDGC Design Entry Form and a UDGC Dropbox folder where you can upload the required information about your design for review by the judges.) (Early design entries will be given priority invitations to attend the UDGC Awards event)
2. Send the completed UDGC Design Entry Form to the UDGC Dropbox folder.
That’s it! You will receive confirmation and updates on the status of your entry.


UDGC People’s Choice Award 2015 Trophy (travelling perpetual trophy) €1,000.00 in prize money (€500 for the school plus €500 for the designer(s))UDGC Judges’ Choice.

Award 2015 Trophy (travelling perpetual trophy) €1,000.00 in prize money (€500 for the school plus €500 for the designer(s))Highly Commended entries will be also be announced at the UDGC event.

The Enterprise Ireland “Universal Design Commercialisation Award” will provide one or more of the shortlisted entrants with a Commercial Case Feasibility Grant.

Key dates

Closing date for registration: 27th March 2015
Awards Event: 4th June, 2015. Westin Hotel, Dublin 2.

For updates go to http://universaldesign.ie/Awards/