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Last Updated: Friday, 20 October 2006, 14:57 GMT 15:57 UK
Making the web accessible for all
Click's Katie Ledger
By Katie Ledger
Click Reporter

Text to speech system, RNID
Technology can help bridge some ability gaps

Despite many efforts to move away from those most traditional interfaces - the ubiquitous computer keyboard and mouse - they remain the bedrock on which nearly all computer interfaces rest.

But for those who find it difficult to use a standard computer there is a raft of user-friendly add-ons and upgrades to help things go more smoothly.

We live in a world that demands us to communicate in many different ways, usually with the computer at the very heart of it.

For millions, the home office has become a reality that allows us to benefit from flexible working; online shopping is simple, and I cannot even remember the last time I stepped into a real bank.

'Fill in the gaps'

In theory it is all very simple. But stop and think for a moment. If you could not see the screen, use a mouse or a standard keyboard, how much of a challenge would it be to stay connected?

For some people, when they acquire a disability it is imperative that they learn how to use technology to help fill in the gaps in their lives that their disability has created
Pamela Hardaker, AbilityNet

AbilityNet is a charity based in the UK that helps people with different disabilities to get online.

Clients range from people with severe paralysis to those dealing with dyslexia, repetitive strain injury or just the effects of getting older. After an initial assessment, experts advise on the use of specialist hardware and software.

"Only 13% of people are born with their disability, the other 80% - in this country, and I presume it's similar worldwide - acquire their disability," said Pamela Hardaker of AbilityNet.

"So for some people, when they acquire a disability it is imperative that they learn how to use technology to help fill in the gaps in their lives that their disability has created."

Speech recognition

David Morris is the senior policy advisor at the Greater London Authority, advising the London's Mayor on accessibility issues.

He has Spinal Muscular Atrophy and uses a number of technologies to get on with his busy schedule. His favourite is voice recognition accompanied by a Bluetooth headset.

Three people using Blackberry mobile device
It's really inaccessible to me as a one-handed, left-handed person, with the stupid jog wheel, which is really difficult to use
David Morris, Greater London Authority

He has been using speech recognition software for almost 10 years, and currently uses Dragon Naturally Speaking.

"Voice activated software enables me to compete on an equal basis. In fact it probably gives me an advantage, because those people who are smart, know that voice-activated software has now reached a point where it's very functional."

Speech Recognition software generally needs a bit of training before it can be used which puts most people off, but the recently released Dragon Naturally Speaking version nine claims that it has overcome that hurdle and now can be used straight out of the box.

The Blackberry is another bit of kit that David has in his bag. Although he likes the great functions, he believes the design could be improved for many people, both the disabled and the left handed.

"For the first time in a long time I can access a keyboard, but it's really inaccessible to me as a one-handed, left-handed person, with the stupid jog wheel, which is really difficult to use.

So I have to turn it upside down, which is a strange way to access emails, but it's still very important."

'Life changing'

For pretty much everyone using a computer is liberating, but for some, including Darren Carr, who is paralysed from the neck down, it is life changing.

Virtual keyboard
Virtual keyboards can be projected on to any surfaces

One of Darren's proudest moments was when he got his degree from London School of Economics.

"I've got a friend who lives in Australia. We chat over the internet and I also use Skype and things like that. It makes communication and things like that a lot easier for someone like myself.

"I can keep in touch with my friends via IM (instant message), and also by emails. It's so much easier than having the phone held up to your ear."

Darren uses a headset and the Wivik virtual keyboard. A signal, transmitted from the control unit, is picked up by sensors on the headset.

By comparing the signal strength from each sensor, the system determines the position of the head and moves the cursor. To click he uses a suck and blow tube.

Eye control

There are newer, more sophisticated technologies out there. MyTobii is one of the few systems using eye tracking technology.

Using high resolution cameras in the monitor it tracks your eyes and follows your gaze. All you need to do is look at wherever you want the cursor to go.

This tool is most effective when used with its sister application, The Grid, which works to simplify the Windows environment.

It can also enable people to interact with their environment by switching on lights, the TV and answering the phone.

"Voice recognition is certainly getting to the level now where people would chose to use it, they wouldn't just use it because they had to," said Pamela Hardaker.

"It is so effective that people would want to use it because it's much easier to do your work that way.

"It wouldn't surprise me if the eyegaze technology doesn't go that way eventually as well. So we have the eyegaze built into our computer and we just look at where we want to click on the screen, and that happens for us automatically."

So what of the future? Will we see more technologies specifically designed for people with disabilities?

Or perhaps it is more likely, as some predict, that all of us see the ease of use and functionality as something desirable.

SEE ALSO
Gadget firms tackled on usability
15 May 06 |  Technology
Usability awards are just a start
31 Oct 05 |  Technology
Disabled users to test websites
17 Mar 06 |  Technology

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