Accessible assistive technology with AbilityNet

Written By: Peter Abrahams
Content Copyright © 2006 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

In a recent article ‘Does accessible product = accessible vendor?‘, I argued that to make ICT accessible to people with disabilities it is not enough for the products to be accessible; the whole cycle from initial awareness, such as advertising, through to ongoing support, via a help desk, needs to be accessible.

This is particularly true of assistive technologies, such as screen readers, alternative keyboards, alternative pointing devices and voice recognition. AbilityNet is a UK charity with over twenty years of experience helping disabled adults and children use computers and the internet by adapting and adjusting technology. AbilityNet run a program for people with disabilities that starts with an assessment of needs and requirements, followed by recommendations, loans of equipment, installation and on-going support.

The program is greatly appreciated by everyone who used it but AbilityNet recognised that is was not really very accessible. Either the user had to come to an AbilityNet centre or an assessor had to travel to the user. Going to a centre is not always practical and, in any case, an assessment really needs to understand the environment that the user would normally work in.

The obvious difficulty with the assessor going on visits was the time, including travel, and money involved, especially as there would often be a need for follow up sessions for installation, configuration and training.

AbilityNet have just set up a new program called ‘Barrier Free’; this uses the latest technology to remove the need for assessors to travel to the user or vice versa. The user’s computer is connected to broadband and a USB camera is attached. The assessor can now talk to the user, see the environment and how the user works with the computer. The assessor can then make recommendations and can also take over the computer and make modifications to the configuration and evaluate the benefits. An initial assessment will normally take about two hours, however as this is delivered across an internet connection it is practical to break this down into bite sized chunks.

If the assessor believes that extra hardware or software could be of benefit, these can be delivered on a trial basis and another remote session scheduled. In a demonstration, I saw the user had a problem because of trembling hands that made typing very difficult. In the initial session some changes were made to Windows settings that helped significantly but the assessor thought that a modified keyboard would be even better. The keyboard was delivered and a second session scheduled; the new keyboard was a great help and in fact the Windows settings were altered again to get the optimum benefit.

This new method of delivery is a win-win-win situation:

  • AbilityNet assessors are more productive and can work from anywhere, which should reduce the stress of travelling.
  • The user gets a better service but also benefits because it is possible to have several short sessions; again this lowers the stress related to having to get it all right in one go. Also it is possible to have very short follow up sessions if the user is having a specific problem of the sort ‘I am using x and I can not work out how to do y’.
  • The user’s employer will find that the assessment will have minimum disruption to schedules and other staff as compared to the assessor being on site.

Now that AbilityNet has proved the concept I believe that organisations, charities or government, around the world, should replicate the solution and I look forward to reporting on such initiatives.

If you believe that you or one of your employees could benefit from this service please go to AbilityNet at