Access and Inclusion through Technology

Access Technology - Today and Tomorrow

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Working with Delegates at ATIA 2017

I had the good fortune to spend much of the ATIA conference this year in the company of international delegates in my role as International ambassador. For those who have never been ATIA is a major US conference devoted to the AT industry with over 300 seminars, a major exhibition and over 2000 delegates. The days are long with sessions starting at 8am and events running until 7.30pm,  and that's when the informal networking starts ! It is the very scale of what is available that can seem daunting. For those flying from Europe, Middle East and the Far East some support to get the most from the event is appreciated.

One of the first things we encouraged new delegates to consider is registering as a speaker. Whilst this might sound onerous, there is no better way of finding fellow delegates with similar interests, it is very usual at the end of sessions to find the speakers and their audience arranging times to continue conversations and discussing potential sharing and networking for the future. Take plenty of business cards !

Once registered as a speaker, you will start to see the conference program emerging, and at this point a little help in understanding some of the sessions and choosing those that really helped hit the aims of attending was appreciated. One of the interesting things is that a terminology begins to emerge around conferences, buzzwords and jargon can sneak in, and understanding what some of that means makes decision making a,lot easier. What exactly is the difference between a Bootcamp, a town hall and an unconference, the terms can appear a little daunting.

Knowing what you really want to achieve in attending is very helpful at this stage, it is also a good time to start to apply for visas, leaving the application late can cause last minute problems and event an inability to travel. Fortunately ATIA were very helpful and supportive of those whose visa requests were rejected.

So at this stage we have planned to go round the exhibition and have filled the diary with seminars, when the opportunity to meet with other delegates emerges. One of the main reasons to attend ATIA is to network with like minded professionals, and there are a lot of them!.Setting up those meetings, brokering introductions and helping make the most out of every minute our delegates were attending was our objective, and we seemed to achieve it.

So we are starting work on ATIA 2018, it will soon be time to promote the call for papers and im looking forward to continuing the role in 2018. Why not think about joining us, Ill be there to help!

Supporting AAC Users in Pakistan

I was very fortunate to be invited to visit both Pakistan and parts of the Middle East in the last year. Looking back it is interesting to consider the common challenges and opportunities faced in providing services and assistive technologies that we encountered. In this blog, I reflect upon my time in Islamabad and Rawalpindi

In discussing how to meet AAC needs in Pakistan it is important to understand the size of the country, much larger than most of us from the west anticipate. That has significant implications for how services can be delivered. In a country where the rights of people with a disability are recognized, but where there are major barriers to delivering upon that commitment the need to share best practices across the country is a constant challenge. People do rise to that challenge, after it was announced that both EA Draffan and would I be in Pakistan, a number of people thought nothing of driving for four hours to engage and discuss ideas despite fog and crowded roads. There was a passion and interest in the work - a half day public event on disability and communication drew 1500 people to an events marquee in Islamabad. They heard from those of us from the west about best practices and examples of the impact of technology, but also listened intently to politicians and religious leaders share perspectives and ideas. Above all the theme emerged that we must, and can do more.

Outside of the large public event, we delivered some in depth training on aspects of AAC provision to Speech and Language therapists locally. EA explored the concepts of AAC, investigating how assessment can take place and I added to this by exploring the continuum of technology devices and how we can use those devices to stimulate communication in a purposeful manner. From those discussions we identified some common issues to consider.

1 The delivery of AAC services needs to be integrated into the wider experience of the user

One of the issues we discussed at length was how speech and language therapists could integrate their knowledge and expertise with other members of a multidisciplinary team. The therapists I met recognized the limitations of working on a withdrawal method to deliver AAC training and assessment. We began to explore what drove the maintenance of that model and what could be done about that. Some of the themes that emerged were   

  • The baseline of knowledge and experience among other professionals including teachers
  • The availability of equipment for use outside of the therapy session
  • Time management challenges to meet the levels of demand

We recognized that addressing these challenges not only required a commitment by all members of the team, but also policy and actions from service managers to incentivise team members to apply AAC programs with the therapist was not present.   

2 Technology availability in Pakistan needs to be stimulated

The availability of technology with which learners could develop,practice and generalize their communication skills was a real barrier to uptake of AAC in Pakistan. Much of the equipment was based around simple hardware devices such as a big mack or gotalk. These were easy to use, reliable and used digitised speech making recording and speaking messages in Urdu easier. There was a great deal of interest in the availability of low cost AAC apps, especially for Android platforms which are far more pervasive than Windows Phone or iPads. As we spoke, it seemed unlikely that the market in Pakistan was large enough to attract the interest of western AAC manufacturers, especially as there were some technical limitations to localising apps to support Urdu. As a result, it was clear to us that the challenge of providing AAC apps in Pakistan had to be met from within Pakistan. Relationships between therapists, services, researchers and developers needed to be nurtured to bring products to market. Who would lead that effort needed to be clarified and acceptable to all.     

3 AAC products need to be available to support local language and culture

The challenge of producing new products for Urdu, that could be available at a price point that was accessible in Pakistan is significant. We all felt that there were some significant building blocks that needed to be created, which could be integrated into new products by innovators and entrepreneurs. The most significant of these were

  • Urdu Text to Speech
  • Urdu work prediction
  • Graphic symbols reflecting the culture and values of Pakistan

To develop the technologies required to meet the first two needs, it was clear that researchers needed to be encouraged to enage with the issue. There was great consensus that this could best be done by the government funding the development of the technology under open source licence to support developers of AAC solutions and reduce the cost of the final products.

On the third point, there was considerable discussion about taking the Tawasol Arabic/Islamic symbol set and modifying the symbols for the culture of Pakistan. Pakistan is an immensely rich culture, I was taken to see hugely colorful locations, and clothing worn by many women was bright whilst modest. Similarly the clothing of men was different to those we had depicted in the Arabic symbol set. But despite this, many felt that the symbols provided a much firmer starting point for the creation of a Pakistani symbol dictionary than western symbols and that the availability of the Tawasol set under a very broad creative commons licence was welcomed.         

These themes were reflected when I had the opportunity to visit a child development center in Rawalpindi. Whilst meeting members of the teams delivering AAC and discussing how it was being provided for individual children, the limitations we had discussed the day before were apparent. There is no lack of commitment or passion in Pakistan and there was evidence of a strong foundation of knowledge in Islamabad, the challenge is to provide the resources and technology which unlocks that potential.

On a personal note, I should describe how welcome I felt in Pakistan. I had great pleasure in meeting people, there was a willingness to debate the way ahead and everyone that I met took time to help educate me about the culture of the country and the experience was personally fulfilling. If others get a chance to visit, take some pleasure in it, enjoy the beautiful mosques, but visit the preserved sites sacred to Buddhists, Sikhs and others, prepare to be challenged and to engage in debate with both men and women. Take pleasure in the beauty of the country, and try to understand the economics and culture to help bring access and inclusion to all.

World Autism Awareness Week - After awareness what can you do ?

This week marked World Autism Awareness Day – it’s become a major global initiative that has been hugely successful in increasing awareness of Autism. I have some mixed feelings about how autism is portrayed in the campaigns having spent much of my early career working with young people with very deep and profound autism, but one cannot deny the success of the campaign in changing attitudes. But once you have created an appetite for making change on behalf of people who are on the Autistic Spectrum, you need to fill the demand of information on approaches that it generates.
So in no particular order, here are three of my favourites

AIM the autism internet modules - is an amazing resource developed by OCALI. AIM is designed to provide high-quality information and professional development for anyone who supports, instructs, works with, or lives with someone with autism. Each module guides you through case studies, instructional videos, pre- and post-assessments, a glossary, and much more. AIM modules are available at no cost. If you would like to receive credit for your time on AIM, certificate and credit options are available for a fee.

PrAACtical AAC supports a community of professionals and families who are determined to improve the communication and literacy abilities of people with significant communication difficulties. It was founded in 2011 by two SLP professors, Carole Zangari and the late Robin Parker, around a shared passion for AAC. It’s a remarkable collection and much of the work shared is directly relevant to people with Autism

The final one is something I’ve put together, it’s a collection of resources and links on Autism and Technology that you can access for free on Pinterest. I try to check all of the links but can’t promise 100% - social networks like Pinterest are a really easy way for people to access information, and I’ve found it especially popular with families who like the very easy to digest style of the pins with the capacity to go into greater depth. It’s part of my ongoing commitment to trying to provide free advice and information whenever I can, and by following the board (or the AAC board) you’ll get updates and interesting links a couple of times a week. Hope you find it useful

Personal Mobility, “One day we will look back and this will all seem funny.”

Personal Mobility is changing, and we are approaching a period where our current concept of wheelchairs will feel as outdated as crossing the Atlantic by sailboat.

Two significant trends are emerging that will see the business of the provision of powered mobility aids being one that will be subject to significant disruption.

The first is obvious, more people are acquiring wheels. Every time I walk through a park, go to a mall or stroll along our seafront in Doha its remarkable to see how many people now use forms of powered mobility. People have always used wheels for personal mobility, bicycles, skateboards, skates have been available for many years. But in recent years these have been enhanced with powered solutions. It started with the Segway, beloved by city tours and security guards, the upright device can be found around the world, although it is perhaps not as ubiquitous as the “hoverboards” that emerged world wide as a toy and leisure activity over the past 18 months. As I walked through our local park a few weeks ago I dived for the grassed areas to avoid the youngsters on powered bicycles and they sped along the paving. Powered personal mobility is moving into the mainstream.

This may or may not be a good thing, as these devices become increasingly widespread they will increase the demand for environmental access to be considered. Curbcuts and accessible routes will be demanded by the new breed of mobility device users. However the increasing use of these by mainstream communities may lead to some areas being protected from “wheelies” so that those who walk are not put at risk of being mown down

But this trend is being contradicted by innovation by research and commercialization of exoskeletons, the technologies that enhance our current physical abilities and which can operate in a wider range of environments than any wheeled device can. It is not my intention to enter into the debate about where funding should be prioritized, towards environmental access adjustments or into research, I tend to believe that both are needed to provide for both current and future needs. I don’t accept the argument that human augmentation is necessarily simple an attempt to repair or “fix” the person, both wheelchairs and exoskeletons can be seen from within a social context, they are both technologies that provide a means by which needs are accommodated within the environment. There is a strong parallel with assistive technologies here. The user needs assistive technology (screen readers, keyboards, switches, joysticks etc) but also needs accessible content (websites, apps, ebooks etc). Within the built environment the user currently needs personal technology (wheelchair, scooter, smartcane) alongside an accessible environment, (curbcuts, ramps, tactile flooring). Access currently is dependent upon both factors interacting.

Increasingly it appears that the need for environmental change may fade, not overnight, not immediately, but over time. Instead we will see new technologies empowering the user to have control over their mobility in new ways. We should and can stimulate and embrace that shift but to do so at the cost of people currently living with a disability may be too great a cost.

Im 53 and part of an aging demographic, slowly my capacity for mobility will decline, but I suspect that one day a grandchild will sit on my enhanced knee and ask “tell me the story about how they made you sit, in a chair with wheels ! That must have been so funny!”

ATIA 2016

So this time next week I will be on a plane bound for Florida and ATIA 2016 - I do often get asked for recommendations for those who can only get to one conference a year, and this is usually my number one choice.

First it covers the broadest spectrum of needs, autism, physical, sensory needs are all covered. Second it has a diverse exhibition and is attended not only by sales people but senior manages of companies as well, Third it has a huge workshop program that is predominantly practitioner driven and hence practical. Finally it is very welcoming to overseas visitors, it does no harm that if you can take a couple of days leave you are only a few miles from the best theme parks in the world.

It would be a real pleasure to meet anyone who is attending and catch up face to face, let me know if you will be there.

Social Media Use in the Middle East - implications for inclusion

This is a really interesting piece by my friend Damien Radcliffe on Social media use within the Middle East - it tells an interesting story which deserves some time to think about. Fundamentally we see a significant growth in social media based upon visual content (images/video), growth in social media that uses limited amounts of text, an growth of social media where your personal networks can be secured. So we see lots of use of Snapchat, Instagram and WhatsApp and a shift on platforms such as facebook to using images and video and less text. This is interesting in an era where engagement with social media is a defining feature of social inclusion, and the story is variable. For those who are deaf this is probably a positive step - recognizing the relatively low levels of literacy within the community, but for those with a visual impairment we can see the potential for a new digital divide to emerge and hence possible greater social exclusion.
The story is perhaps not identical world wide, but i suspect that some of the trends may be similar, even if driven by other factors. For instance we can see that people in the 15-25 range in the west are producing less written content on social networks, preferring to share pix and videos, and most often reshare. They are also moving to more self contained networks, preferring not to share everything with everyone (lifestyle choices etc)
So have a look - its a mixed bag for those with a passion for digital inclusion, but thought provoking

Using Switches for Communication

Its interesting to see how the advent of touch devices has changed some of the world of Assistive Technology. One of the areas which has felt that impact has been the use of switch technology for people with physical disabilities, as there has been the growth of an assumption that touch screens are "a bit like using a switch"

The truth is quite different, the skills and abilities to use a touch device, notably accuracy and cognitive sequencing are quite different to the levels required to use a switch, and of course switches can pretty much use any intentional movement, to establish control over technology.

So I was really pleased to find this little booklet on switches via my Pinterest page - its a valuable guide to how to use a switch, what switches are available and how to mount them etc.

I really do recommend it to you, as a refresher on issues to consider, or as an introduction to switch use I think youll find it helpful

Train Siri to Hear Better

Over the past few months years I've seen very mixed success at using the built in voice recognition on Apple and android devices - often variations in accent and pronunciation cause significant barriers to users - So I was really pleased to see this update that you can now provide a degree of training to Siri to recognize your voice - one of the major factors in people with a disability using Siri or similar is that they feel confident that the technology will do the right thing when asked, avoidance of the frustration factor is essential in maintaining uptake of an AT. That's as true of Siri as any other access tools

So have a look at this article and video to learn more

The Kindle Fire, changing the gameplan for access ?

The new Kindle Fire was released this week to a fascinating mixture of responses, pundits thought it was great, apple Fanboyz derided it and the blind community attacked its lack of access for the visually impaired with righteous indignation and anger, this following the same community lauding Steve Jobs for apples work on providing access.

I dont know to what extent the community has had its hands on the kindle fire - many of the pundits were not able to get hands on, but lets assume that the new device has little or no TTS functionality.

Let me be upfront - Im a bit of a Kindle Fan - my ebook reader is a tech I use every single day and I love it - as an expatriate living overseas the access it provides me to a widely ranging bookstore is a significant part of my quality of life. But it is the channel that it provides to content that is important - not the device per se

Which leads us to our debate around accessibility, whilst we may well be annoyed that such a new and low cost device does not have full screenreading functionality, this may well be the wrong debate. Our question perhaps should be, is the content that Amazon distributes, available to all people regardless of needs. Kindle has a hugely diverse range of channels to its content with software (free) for every major platform to read content as well as the traditional reader and now the Fire.

I havent tested all of these but Im going to look at which of these work well with screenreaders and offer support to blind and people with low vision. Because perhaps the debate now should perhaps be - does Amazon (or apple or whoever) offer access to the same content for no greater cost than a person who is not yet disabled in anyway ?

This is more or less the case for other forms of accessibility, access to a building doesn't require that every entrance has a ramp, access to disney rides doesn't require that every cart is wheelchair accessible and access to the cinema doesnt require that every seat is removable for wheelchair access. In all cases there is a compromise that is being offered.

I imagine that the first response Im likely to get is that all people should be able to use all channel as a matter of having a range of  choices. Im not entirely convinced by this, my choices are limited by a range of factors, including cost, but also my language, my age (and increasingly weak hearing and sight) and my location. Like all users I have to weigh up all of these factors in making a decision and it may well be that other members of my family would opt for a different way of accessing Amazon to the one that suits me. 

I do understand the frustration of the blind community, but the debate needs to be mature. The Kindle Fire may not be a solution for people with a visual impairment, I dont know - what I do know is that a lightweight reader for books and other media is helpful for people with conditions such as arthritis, a simple touch and  go interface works for people with learning difficulties or seniors and that Amazon content with subtitles is a valued service for the deaf.

Amazon needs to savvy up to these issues and be clear on the routes it is offering to its content for people with a variety of needs, but perhaps those of us in the accessibility world need to be thinking increasingly of promotion of access to content across a matrix of options, rather than each device independently.

Access for All? It’s a never ending story,

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to travel to Orlando in the American state of Florida for a major assistive technology conference. The conference was a success despite the hotel catching fire and a tornado touching down in town whilst I was there: never a dull moment in the world of access technology! But access to technology conferences are not what take most people to Orlando. Most visitors travel to visit some of the world’s best theme parks and I was no exception. I visited Disney’s Magic Kingdom and left impressed with how Disney has risen to the challenge of turning a 47 square mile attraction, into a visit that anyone will remember, regardless of whether they have a disability or not.

Upon my arrival, I was greeted by key personnel working on access issues at Disney. Before taking me on a tour of the park, they gave me some of the history to Disney’s commitment to making a visit magical for any visitor. Early photos of the park show Walt Disney himself greeting children in wheelchairs as they take a tour. This established a culture of accessibility from the early days of the internationally acclaimed theme park.

The area where Disney is excelling today are:

1. Accessible Rides

Most people visit Disney World to go on the rides. They are a huge part of the experience and without them visitors might feel that they had missed out in major way. Across almost all rides, great care was taken to think about how users with disabilities would board, be seated and leave the ride. Special pods had been design on many rides which allowed wheelchairs to enter the ride directly without the need to transfer to different seating. If a transfer was needed, the employees or “cast” as Disney likes to call them, could halt the ride to allow extra time. In more recent times this had changed, by creating an additional loop on rides where pods for disabled guests could be withdrawn from the ride without the need to stop the ride, rejoining the ride as the gap in the succession of pods came around again. It was a great feature which allowed guests with a disability to take all the time they needed boarding, without disrupting the experience of others and without feeling that they were being “judged” by other guests as they got on board.

Space Mountain is one of many accessible rides at Disney World

2. Training

Even with the design of pods for users, there was still a need to help people with a disability to feel confident that they could easily board and disembark without a problem. Disney had invested in a ride where people with disabilities could practice getting on and off the ride, increasing their confidence when they got to the front of the queues for real.

3. Accessible Transport

Disney World is big. There are multiple parks spread across 47 square miles, and getting from one park to another requires a huge complex public transport system which includes buses, trams, and a widely used monorail. It would have been easy for Disney to have adopted an “equal but different” approach where special transport was available separately for people with a disability, but such approaches always struggle with availability (have you ever tried to get an accessible taxi in Doha?) So instead, the public transport system at Disney World was designed to allow people with disabilities to use the same modes of transport as everyone else. Buses had low loading access, monorails had space for wheelchairs and these carriages were clearly marked so that you could find them easily. The result was that people with a disability were as mobile between parks as they were within them. And with sidewalks with multiple curb cuts, it was easy for chairs (and baby carriages) to get around the attractions.

A Braille Map at Disney Land

4. Accessible Information

Once you were in the park, it was easy to get lost – did I mention that Disney was big? A key point around Disney World was there were usefully situated maps of the park you were in. Such maps were useful to any guest, especially in the rain when your free paper copy turns into pulp very quickly. The maps were carefully designed to include key labels available in both Braille and with universally understood symbols and icons. Good designs for people with a disability helped everyone, from those standing with a sodden map, to those with limited use of English who could easily understand the icons and symbols more than words.

5. Assistive Technology

Technology is at the heart of the Disney experience, not only in the future themed Epcot Center, but as an integral part of every ride you visit. From the cute animatronics of “It’s a Small World” to the smells, sounds and images of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” technology makes these experiences more vivid and memorable.

So perhaps it is no surprise that this experience has been brought to bear on maximising the experience for people with a disability. Upon arrival at the park, a disabled guest can request a personal PDA to carry around with them. The PDA will provide the user with captions or audio descriptions for shows and rides they visit. The descriptions explain to a blind user what the sighted person can see around them, integrating with the music, smells and effects on the ride. The captions synchronise with a show to give instructions or storyline for a deaf person. It’s a great, non intrusive experience that makes rides truly accessible.

But the devices go even further than this. They also help a disabled person to locate themselves in the park by a combination of GPS, RFID, Infrared and Bluetooth technologies that trigger messages as you wander through the park. The messages explain where you are, what is around you and what routes you should take to get to other great rides. As a non disabled person I wanted one of these as well, and it was great to hear that Disney are exploring how to make this information available via a mobile phone rather than needing a specialised device.

However, maybe the most impressive part of all of this, was not the technology, the investment or the commitment, it was that every cast member I met knew about it and knew how to make it all work. Need to know how to get on a ride in a wheelchair? Just ask! Need to know about tactile maps and accessible transport? Just Ask! Need to know where to get a loaned wheelchair or way finder? Just Ask! Now that is impressive, and it demonstrates a real understanding at Disney that providing solutions is not enough if no one helps people to use them.

A Never Ending Story?

Despite all these great features at their flagship theme park in Orlando, Disney isn’t perfect. it knows that they have work to do on making web information accessible to all, to making booking systems easier to use for the blind and for people who use keyboard control only, but to their credit they don’t brush these issues under the mat, they seem to have a plan, the commitment and the investment to address them. They know that as Disney changes and evolves, so do the ways in which access for all needs is to be delivered.

So what can we learn from Disney? What I took away is that creating a truly accessible environment is a long term plan, and one which needs constant renewal as technology changes and the opportunities for access and aspirations of disabled people grow. It has taken 11 years of commitment for Disney to get where it is today, and that journey isn’t over yet. 11 years? That’s an interesting figure for us in Qatar as we lie 11 years away from 2022, when Qatar is set to host the FIFA World Cup. Is it just possible that as the country responds to the challenges of the delivering an amazing World Cup in 2022, that we might also develop a plan and an infrastructure that means that any disabled person in Qatar, citizen, resident or guest will look back and remember the magic as well? I think we can, but that journey needs to start today because 11 years is no time at all. Thanks Mickey for reminding us what is possible!

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