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Nine out of ten disabled people have no access to AT solutions

Ninety percent of the world has no access to assistive solutions, Professor Luc de Witte, told the recent Assistive Technology Conference at Salford University.

Describing a trip to India where he encountered disabled people living in piteous conditions, the professor expressed his frustration at the huge discrepancy between his work on robotics and the reality of life in India where there are 100m disabled people.

Professor de Witte is professor of Health Services Research at Sheffield University and President of the Association for the Advancement of Assistive Technology in Europe (AAATE).

There was a huge market for assistive technology in developing countries, he said. “There are 85m disabled people in China and no help for them. How you bridge the divide is to create quality standards and develop useful models of systems.”

The Professor advocated two track innovation that focused both on emerging technologies such as the care robots he is working on, but also included older, proven technologies.

Delegates at the conference, chaired by BATA executive director John Lamb, also heard from David Brown of the RNIB who gave a compelling account of his experiences with AT after he was blinded in Iraq.

Brown described the development of smartphone accessibility and demonstrated Microsoft’s iPhone app Seeing AI, which he described as a Swiss army knife for the blind and partially sighted.

The app uses facial recognition algorithms; it recognizes saved friends and describes the emotions of people around the user. It can read text out loud including text on signs and can also scan and read documents.

Seeing AI is able to recognize bank notes and is equipped with a barcode scanner to identify items in the supermarket or pantry. Its experimental options include a verbal narration of the environment that it sees.

Brown also chatted to  a volunteer on the Be My Eyes service which enables sighted people to describe images captured by a blind person’s smartphone. There are 500,000 volunteers and 40,000 users of Be My Eyes.

One of Brown’s ambitious is to increase the number of vision impaired people using tech aids. He is part of the RNIB’s Online Today programme, aimed at encouraging 100,000 people to get online.

Anna Reeves, chief executive of the Ace Centre, talked about efforts to improve the availability of assessments and equipment to the over 270,000 people in England and Wales with speech and communications impairments.

She described the hub and spoke infrastructure, introduced after the Bercow report on augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), and talked about the ACE Centre’s contract with the NHS to improve access to AAC.

Hubs are centres of expertise organised on a regional basis. They support local centres or spokes. There is £15m per year available to fund the programme.

People with severe cerebral palsy, motor neurone disease, multiple sclerosis and brain injury were likely to get access to the 350 communications aids available.

Those without complex needs were less likely to get the kit they needed. “It is still a post code lottery,” said Reeves.

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Scholarships offer free software

Six of the UK’s leading assistive technology companies have teamed up to offer ten assistive technology scholarships offering free software and training.

LexAble, Texthelp, Matchware, Sonocent, Learning Labs and DnA are inviting applicants for the scholarships to tell them why they should have one. Scholarships will be awarded on the basis of the passion, creativity, merit and need demonstrated by each applicant.

Those who receive a scholarship will be given free access to Global AutoCorrect, Read and Write, Mindview and Audio Notetaker software and three years access to Learning Labs. In addition, each successful entrant will be provided with six hours of remote training from Diversity and Ability.

Applicants can come from anywhere in the world. Click here for more information.


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£200 laptop charge should be added to students’ loans

BATA has called on the Government to add the £200 charge levied on students who receive laptops under the Disabled Students Allowances (DSAs) to their student loan.

The move follows startling new evidence that the charge is  deterring students from taking up assistive technology that they have been recommended to use.

Since the introduction of the £200 contribution there has been a 30% decrease in the number of students taking up equipment recommended by professional assessors, BATA’s research has revealed.

Information received following a Freedom of Information request shows that students with specific learning difficulties and mental health issues are the groups most significantly affected by the charge.

Copies of a briefing document prepared by BATA have been sent to all 650 MPs, who have been asked to press the Minister for Universities, Sam Gyimah, to consider including the £200 charge in the loan.

Introduced in September 2015, the charge is a direct barrier to entry into higher education for  students with disabilities, BATA believes.

Not only is this group of students the most financially disadvantaged – many disabled students struggle to find the £200 – but disabled students are much more dependent on technology to study effectively than their non-disabled colleagues.

In light of this clear evidence BATA believes the only way forward is to end what amounts to a tax on learning and disability.

The cost would be minimal in terms of the overall budget for higher education but would have an immediate positive impact on the career prospects of a vulnerable and often neglected group of students.

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Support our June fundraising walk in the Peak District


Derwent Dam in the Peak District

There are over 13m disabled people in the UK and many could have a better quality of life if only they had access to assistive technology. That is why members of the British Assistive Technology Association will be walking on June 16 to raise funds for our projects and those of the RNIB and British Dyslexia Association.

All three organisations are committed to pushing forward the boundaries of assistive technology and raising awareness of its benefits, but are in urgent need of your support to continue this work.

We will be meeting on June 16 for a 12km trek around the shores of the beautiful Derwent Reservoir in the Peak District. This year Derwent Reservoir is celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Dam Busters raid when the reservoir and dam was used to practice for the famous bombing exploit.

Information about how to join the walk and how to donate will be available soon.

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UK model of student support wins admirers overseas

BATA chair Antony Ruck and assessor and AT specialist Jodie Parkes were invited to present a seminar on the DSA at ATIA in January of this year. The weather was a balmy 24 degrees, so it wasn’t a difficult decision.

Entitled The UK Model for Supporting Disabled Students in Higher Education and with contributions from across the sector, the presentation set out to show the advances that have been made in the assessment, equipment and services provision, and ongoing support.

With attendees from across the globe, there was much interest in how the DSA is funded, the ecosystem that has developed to enable effective support, and feedback reinforced that the DSA is a flagship scheme that is the envy of the world.

We were especially delighted that BATA member Spellex were in attendance, and Sheldon Wolf has subsequently met with his US Congressman and discussed federal government funding for university students with learning disabilities.

He explained how in the UK, there are laws which require parity be given to students with disabilities so that they can participate on an even playing field with their peers. An ongoing conversation, and one we will monitor, support and assist with where possible.

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BATA session at ATEC to chart AT’s changing landscape

 With technology developments moving so fast, the Assistive Technology Exhibition and Conference (ATEC), held  in London on May 3, has become a ‘go-to’ event for disability and inclusion professionals from post-16 education and the workplace, providing delegates with the opportunity to review and compare the latest products from over 25 assistive technology exhibitors.

Entry to the event provides the perfect opportunity to network with like-minded individuals and includes the option to attend four break-out CPD seminars from a choice of 16, including a seminar by BATA: ‘Changing the AT landscape’ where the chairs of our leading special interest groups will be talking about how they are working with parliament and key government departments to ensure the best outcome for users of AT.

The agenda also includes keynote presentations by Sarah Newton MP, Minister of State for Disabled People, Health and Work and Mark Foulsham, Chief Digital Officer, Scope.

Members of BATA receive an extra 10% discount on booking, so to find out more about ATEC in London, please click here for the ATEC website or take a look at their short video.

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Cap on Access to Work lifted

Disabled employees are to benefit from a £15,000 rise in Access to Work grants to assist them at work, following new measures introduced in Parliament.

From April people will now be able to claim up to £57,200 annually to help pay for additional support that they may need in the workplace – approximately £15,000 more than the current cap of £42,100.

Campaigners had argued that the cap unfairly affected deaf people because of the higher costs involved in providing accessibility for them, especially human signers and tehnology. 

Access to Work provides financial support to ensure someone’s disability or health condition doesn’t hold them back at work, and can cover workplace adaptations, assistive technology, transport and interpreters.

Increasing the amount people can receive annually will ensure that more disabled people are able to benefit from the grant and achieve their career aspirations.

“By extending this grant we’re ensuring that many more disabled people can reach their career potential, which is a key part of our commitment to getting one million more disabled people in work by 2027,” said  Work and Pensions Secretary, Ester McVey.


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The impact of EU’s accessibility directive on higher education

At the moment the EU is still  finalising the  details of how its accessibility directive will need to be implemented by universities and colleges but we expect to have details from the UK government in the next couple of months.

However, the indications so far is that this will apply to FE and HE websites (schools are exempt). As soon as we have clearer details we will be disseminating them. You can access the directive toolkit here.

At this time there are few important points to be aware of…

  • The first requirement for this directive will impact any new websites created after 23 September 2018 which must meet the accessibility requirements by 23 September 2019. As projects may already have started for websites and resources that will be launched in the autumn term, its critical that these teams are aware of requirement.
  • The accessibility standard that this directive requires isn’t just for websites, it also includes online documents (e.g. PDFs, PowerPoint files) and in the future it will also cover intranets and mobile apps.
  • The directive also covers websites and tools that public bodies procure so your procurement teams within IT, the library, faculties etc need to be aware and asking suppliers how the confirm to this directive.

Alistair McNaught (from JISC) and I will be delivering a session at the NADP conference in June on “Achieving digital accessibility in Further and Higher Education” so we will be covering this directive in more detail. And once we have clarity from the EU and UK government about the processes for monitoring websites and other technical issues, we will also be disseminating training resources.

Although this may sound like more work, as disability professionals I believe this will help us raise the profile of digital accessibility within our institutions and engage with the procurement and technical staff who need to implement this directive. The outcome will hopeful be a more inclusive and accessible teaching, learning and working environment for all of us involved with Further and Higher Education.

Dr Abi James
Research Fellow Accessibility Team, WAIS, ECS University of Southampton, Consultant, Assistive Learning Ltd, BDA New Technologies committee.

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Students glued to Sticky Campus

Westminster University played host last month to Sticky Campus, a touring roadshow of technology that persuades students to stay on campus even though they have no teaching to attend.

Features of the Sticky Campus include six height adjustable tables for students to sit round and plug their personal devices into, enabling them to access a larger screen on which they can work on documents together.

Inclusive learning is a key feature of the roadshow. Students using assistive technology can take part on equal terms with non-disabled students, using their specialist applications to collaborate.

Hannah, a final year photography student, showed those who attended the demonstration how she can organise her notes as a mind map and use the map to present her ideas to a group on a big screen.

Similarly, a student with a visual impairment uses Zoom magnification technology to work on a document and show this to others without the Zoom enlargement showing up on the others’ screens.

Short training videos, developed by Wyvern Business Systems for those with specialist hardware and software needs, are part of what’s available on the Sticky Campus.

So far two universities have demonstrated the £70,000 system, but Duncan  Peberdy, an expert on interactive learning who developed the Sticky Campus roadshow aims to have a network of ten universities eventually.

Seema Malhotra MP, co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for AT was concerned that technology should keep disabled people in education and in work. “Higher education institutions have a duty to create an inclusive learning environment,” she said. “There is concern about completion rates and the grades obtained (by students).”

Lib Dem peer Lord Addington, President of the British Dyslexia Association, was more forthright. “One message is you’ve got the kit but  you’ve got the problem of making the two work together, that is the challenge,” he said.

“It is a great series of tools. If you use them you will get a cheer, if you don’t you’ll get your backside kicked.”

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BATA’s Special Interest Groups have a public group you can join called AT Educationalists. Click here to let us know if you would like to join this group to further the cause of AT in the education sector. If you are a teacher, a lecturer or a professional working in schools , colleges and universities this group is for you.