Don't penalise disabled people through expensive assistive tech, say AbilityNet Tech4Good finalists

Simply having a disability and wanting do the same things as your family, friends and peers has sometimes sadly meant expensive assistive technology devices and software.

But Accessibility Award finalists in the AbilityNet Tech4Good awards think this is unfair and so have created exciting and ground-breaking technology which is either free or much cheaper than similar options.

How about typing with your eyes using free assistive on-screen keyboard software? One of the finalists in the Tech4Good Accessibility Award category has created the OptiKey programme for Windows to do this. It works partciularly well for people who have motor and speech limitations through conditions such as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) / Motor Neuron Disease (MND) and are unable to type.

Open source and free assistive software

The programme can be used with an eye-tracking device installed, or a webcam. The software enables someone to 'type' by selecting letters, numbers and other keys using something called 'dwell selection' (where a person holds their gaze over a letter and the computer registers it as a typed key).

For someone who has a little movement it can work, for example, with the person using one simple button or assistive device reachable to them which can then be operated to locate and click on keys all from one point, such as a switch on a wheelchair. Or, if a person has some movement, a mouse can be used to select keys.

Julius Sweetland, programmer and founder of OptiKey, says: “It was written to challenge the outrageously expensive, unreliable and difficult to use AAC (alternative and augmentative communication) products on the market. It is therefore fully open-source and free. Forever.”.

image of the Canute Braille e-reader

In this category with OptiKey is the Canute digital Braille e-reader, designed to be an affordable option for blind people or those with sight loss. The designers of this piece of hardware saw that Braille readers were losing out on key skills and pleasure in an age of digital books and Kindle type devices.

“This is not just a hardware project; it’s a labour of love that’s lasted five years,” said Ed Rogers from Bristol Braille which has created the Canute. “All of us came to this either through the hackspace or the Braille reading community.”

The joy of Braille reading

The Canute team says affordable Braille is essential for blind literacy, education and employment, yet Braille use has been declining for decades due to stagnant technology. Text-to-speech options do not maintain literacy or offer the joy of reading, he believes. 

The technology is the first multiple line Braille e-reader and has forty characters per line by nine lines. It is not on the market yet but the aim is to be able to sell it at the same price as an iPhone, to make it cheaper than anything else that offers any similarity. “We rely very heavily on the feedback, design and knowledge of a community group of 290 Braille readers called the Braillists,” said Rogers.

Field tests are have been running in schools and with blind professionals, educators and students. The aim is to reverse the decline in Braille literacy and increase blind literacy, education, employment and social engagement.

a lady uses autonome in her kitchen to learn how to use her kettle

Joining the two finalist to complete the category as Samsung R&D Institute and Auto-nome. Samsung has added the 'Voice Guide' to its Smart TV, expanding the functionality of its digital Text-to-Speech engine. Now the TV is able to use this engine to accurately announce on-screen text for selected Video on Demand applications, boosting information for the viewer. In addition its “See colors” feature enables users with colour vision deficiency to see colours more clearly and sharply.

Point an iPad at a kettle and learn how to make a cuppa

The AutonoMe combines mobile and video technology to offer interactive learning for people with learning difficulties. A person can use the a combination of mobile and video technology to point a smart device at an object, such as a vacuum or kettle, to get a video showing how to use the vacuum or make a cup of tea (see photo above).

“Smart devices and our support systems are making the 21st century living accessible to everyone. Often people with learning disabilities are left behind or an afterthought when it comes to building innovative technology,” explains William Britton from Inclusive Media Solutions, which has designed the AutonoMe.

In 2017, the project partnered with Devon, Dorset, Hampshire and Southampton Councils, to roll out the technology to the people in their communities.

Vote for your favourite of this year's 32 finalists, including the projects mentioned here, in the People's Award.