Tuesday, April 2, 2013

What Would Life Be Like……#ifihadapairofgoogleglasses ?

Are they just a pair of Glasses?

Image of woman wearing high tech Google Glass device
Google Glass as a Pair of Glasses!

I just read an interesting article, one of the many that has been popping up over the past month or two relating to the new Google Glass, the most recent and probably to date, the most advanced proposition for a real “wearable computing” solution. 

  I have to admit some confusion regarding the name, for some reason I appear to refer to Google Glass continuously in the plural, mainly because it bears at least a material resemblance to the existing wearable AT solution that sits on the bridge of my nose!
Google Glass is not available as a product yet, (and of course neither are “Google Glasses”) although it seems like people have been talking about it for quite a while.  In fact applications for Google Glass, according to their website have closed, http://www.google.com/glass/start/how-to-get-one/.  With announcements for their early adopter program due shortly and the promise of a consumer model late in 2013.

The article by Natasha Lomas (http://techcrunch.com/2013/03/31/glass-explorer-apps/) presents a great update on the project as a whole and presents a digest of some of the many ideas posed by applicants to the Google Glass Explorer Program, a process running in early 2013 for anyone who wanted to apply requiring them post their proposed innovations on Google+ or Twitter consisting of 50 words or less, featuring the hashtag #ifihadglass.

One can only assume that this privileged community of, rumor has it, 1500 people will become the new pioneers in the next generation of mobile or wearable technology solutions.
Google Glass is a wearable computer with a head-mounted display (HMD) that is being developed by Google in the Project Glass research and development project, see the Wikipedia entry for further information http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google_Glass .  I also wonder if the 007 nature of such technology coupled with the fact that it is being developed in somewhere called “Google X Lab” alongside a “driverless car”, has added to the hype about it?

Since talk about Google Glass has been doing the rounds for longer than the Apple Watch, it despite all of the talk and hype, there is nothing for the public to judge beyond sound-bites and speculation.  However, as blogs are a natural home for speculation – we will indulge ourselves here with some speculation as to what Google Glass might mean for people with a disability or the accessibility community.
Often we are witness to new revolutions in technology leaving people with a disability floundering in its wake, or disenfranchised in the enthusiasm of the latest and greatest trend.  Does anyone from the blind community remember the launch of the Graphic User Interface – or going back further, how long it took for members of the Deaf Community to make up for ground lost by Bell’s groundbreaking “telephone”?

In her article, Natasha Lomas compiled a list of the app ideas that Glass winners are pledging to create, interestingly there are several potential applications for People with a Disability or otherwise improve the accessibility of the ICT landscape.
Some of the examples include:

It was heartening to see the list of potential apps that might be created for people with a disability, particularly after watching the promotional video which appears on the “How It Feels” section of the Google Glass website http://www.google.com/glass/start/how-it-feels/ (how accessible is that?), which would suggest that this revolution in wearable technology is nothing other than a home movie camera for families and adrenalin junkies.

So many of the ideas posed relate to solutions for People who are Deaf or Hearing Impaired, curious that developers obviously see potential in a technology that clearly looks like its for people with low vision, to be transformed into a device that helps deaf or hearing impaired people communicate.

For those, like me, who were neither brave enough or organized enough to submit my ideas in 50 words or less using the hashtag #ifihadglass – I now offer the opportunity to post your speculations as to what the “killer” APP for the Assistive Technology or Accessibility communities will be right here.

For people with Dyslexia: An App that highlights each word as the person moves their eyes over text or documents and used text to speech to “read aloud” for the person.

·         For adults with low vision: An App that magnifies text to a selected font size, and renders this in the person’s field of vision.  This would be particularly useful for older people who struggle to read the prices or information on labels when shopping.

·         For people with restricted mobility: An app that allows environmental control via eye gaze (if eye gaze technology can be scaled to such a degree).  Allowing a person with limited mobility to look at an object and change its state (on/off etc.) would be a huge step forward from the current switch and scanning solutions currently available.

·         For Young Adults with a Learning Disability: An APP that could act as a “travel partner”, assisting young adults with cognitive disabilities with learning how to travel or take transportation independently.

·         For Children with Communication Disabilities: An APP that provides text to speech feedback for objects a child is looking at, providing an opportunity for a parent or therapist to gain better insight as to the child’s ability to eye-point to objects in his/her environment.  Although the main challenge would be to stop the child from continuously taking the high tech specs off!!!

Anyway – this is just for starters.  I, for one, am not sure if the final Google Glass that we will eventually see, will live up to expectations.  It is easy however, to sit on the sidelines and remain skeptical, instead it’s a lot more productive to :imagine”.  With that thought in mind, I would love to hear anyone else’s speculations about what Google Glass might offer people with a disability. Tweet it, share it, blog it – it certainly makes for some interesting thinking and conversations!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Dyslexia in Arabic: Encouraging this Old Dog to start thinking about New Tricks

The importance of collabration for Assistive Technology for Dyslexia in Arabic

A paper with handwriting in Arabic and English characterizing Dyslexia
Dyslexia in Arabic - is it that Different?

For those of us who have spent the greater part of our careers working in one language, such as English, one of the most interesting things about working in a new culture is how we are forced to disassemble all we assume and all we think we know about Dyslexia.
I’ve just spent an unbelievably interesting day, trying to gain a greater insight as to how Dyslexia represents itself when a child or adult is reading or writing in Arabic.
When I arrived in Doha two years ago I grappled with learning Arabic.  My enthusiasm was without question; my ability however fell a lot shorter.  This was my starting point in appreciating the profound differences between not just both languages but how people learn or teach each of these languages.
For the first time, I became truly aware that how a language is learnt is guided not just by the trends and fashions of teaching but also by the language itself.  
Thinking about this in the context of finding technology to support those with Dyslexia in Arabic - for an English speaker was truly an onion worth peeling, in spite of the anticipated tears!

Dyslexia is often described as a specific learning difficulty and as such it reveals itself in many different ways. Dyslexia is not just a difficulty with words, or the ability to read and write.  As such, the use of technology that only helps with spelling and reading often disregards some underlying difficulties that may be impacting the natural development of these skills.

(Click on the link below to learn more)

Often Dyslexia is inaccurately characterized as being a diagnosis of convenience for children who are just poor at spelling, reading or handwriting which can be fixed by practice, effort, hard work and when all else fails a good old spellchecker. 

For anyone with Dyslexia however, and for those of us who have worked first hand with children and adults with this learning difficulty the reality is much more nuanced, much more complicated and requires more sophisticated solutions.  We have, over time watched the software and technology mature, and we’ve seen developments come and go, but for English Speakers with Dyslexia, there are real valuable tools out there.  Word Prediction, Text to Speech, Object Character Recognition software, Software supporting multi-sensory learning are now common tools.  Software titles such as Kurzweil 3000, Text Help, Co-Writer, Penfriend, Ginger, Claroread and a multitude of other titles have become household names, insofar as is possible in the AT community.

Moving to work in a space where Arabic is the primary language used in community life, and for the most part in Education, it forces us to challenge all that we think we know about Dyslexia.  This has been one of the times, where I have had to reflect on how I have developed my belief system about assessment for Dyslexia and how technology can best meet the needs of children and adults struggling with print literacy.

(Click on the link below for more information on Dyslexia and Arabic)

Today I spent some time in the company of a new friend and colleague, Dr Gad Elbeheri, a lecturer in the Australian University in Kuwait who has an appreciation for and understanding of Dyslexia in Arabic based on his research and investigation over the past number of years.  What was most interesting to me was how he explained how the sound of a language often dictates how it is traditionally taught.  He confirmed for me something I was beginning to suspect, i.e., the primacy of traditional literacy teaching based on auditory skills that we see in English language education is not as applicable when learning Arabic.  Of more interest to me was the fact that, although I knew that written Arabic is a morphological language, which has a transformative quality based on context etc., creates another layer of abstraction for students struggling with learning.

We spoke at length about predictors for development of good functional literacy in English and in Arabic and compared stories of experiences we had.
So what does this have to do with Assistive Technology?
In English we have a history of using technology to address Dyslexia which stretched back till at least the early 90’s if not before. 
For more information click on this link: http://dyslexiahelp.umich.edu/tools/software-assistive-technology .

However, as the Assistive Technology industry in the Arabic speaking world has not had as much time to mature, there is not the same range of solutions available for people.   Over the past two years, Mada has tried to address this issues by supporting the development and localization of specific software products aimed at directly supporting those with Dyslexia, including and Arabic version of Clicker 5, an Arabic Claroread and an Arabic version of the FXC Open source Utilities.
There are many challenges ahead, in particular tacking Object Character Recognition and Voice Recognition software, particularly for those requiring compensatory strategies.  With challenges, however there are opportunities.

One thing that struck me today was the value of conversation and debate, a few hours in the company of a knowledgeable and generous colleague is worth weeks of research.  Debate and discussion is healthy and productive.
Most importantly we both agreed on several points:
  • 1.       There is a real and immediate demand for technology that will support those with Dyslexia
  • 2.       The technology cannot just focus on compensation, as doing so would deny many children the significant benefits that can be gained through learning with a technology partner.
  • 3.       New technology developed must be based on research and data as to how Dyslexia manifests in those learning to read and write in Arabic.
  • 4.       Bringing academics, technologists, educators and children together will be the key to developing good solutions.

There is nothing new in this, nothing we haven’t considered before, I have however grateful for the opportunity to talk with a colleague and in partnership re-affirm a road forward in being part of the process of ensuring that technology can be used to minimize the difficulties and maximize the opportunities for people with Dyslexia.

For more information feel free to click on the links below:

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Collateral Damage in the SmartPhone Wars: A real concern for People with Disabilities

Can Accessibility become a Casualty of War as the battle between Apple and Samsung rages on?

Image of Smartphone: Apple iPhone and Samsung Galaxy S3
Smartphones: Can you tell the difference?

The new tech war between Apple and Samsung entered a new sphere of operations recently when a German Court Judge ordered the suspension of an injunction that argued that Apple's VoiceOver screen-access facility infringed one of Samsung’s patents.

In looking more closely at the background to this case, it is clear that Samsung and Apple appear happy to rage through international courts to score points against each other.  Over the past two years industry observers have been witness to  the intensifying competition between two of the world’s two largest SmartPhone manufacturers that has now seen them go head to head incourts across the world over patents and copyright infringements.

It appears now, that both tech giants are happy to go head to head without particular attention to or consideration for users of their respective phones.  This may have always been the case, as gaining a market share by any means possible appears to appeal to those in the Boardrooms of large corporations if not to the general ordinary user.

Previous rulings have resulted in an Australian court temporarily banning the sale of Samsung's iPad alternative the Galaxy Tab agreeing that the Korean product infringes an Apple patent.

Apple has also managed to win similar injunctions against some Samsung products in Germany and the Netherlands, and continues to seek ways of blocking sales of Samsung models in the United States.
Although Apple appear to be winning the current battles, it would appear that this war is not over yet.

 A comprehensive detailing of the ongoing issues have been well documented online, but until now most of us in the Assistive Technology industry probably only paid scant attention.

The latest in their disagreements has however, brought it home to us how we have come to depend on these so called Tech Giants to ensure accessibility for consumers with disabilities.
Access to mainstream technology has long been the desire of the majority of us working in the domain of Assistive Technology, encouraging manufacturers to incorporate accessible solutions and to design products with Universality in mind can and does provide equity of access for many consumers with a disability.
People with a Disability have been at the forefront of promoting the additional accessibility and or functionality offered to them on new Smartphones.   Many of the tech-reviews and related blogs have heralded one new accessibility measure after another and have created a healthy debate about the relative merits of the Apple OS and Android OS in terms of what they offer users with different abilities.  

In particular, operating system additions such as VoiceOver on iPhone suddenly made some of the most desirable technology on the market accessible for people who have vision impairments. 
We at Mada have observed a massive take up in Smartphones by the Blind and Visually Impaired Community in Qatar following the release of Voice Over in Arabic.  This has to be a good thing not just for People with Vision Impairments but also for Smartphone manufacturers.  The massive increase in uptake of these devices must surely include first time smartphone purchasers who have disabilities.
The last thing that People with a Disability need right now is their faith in technology manufacturers to be eroded further living in fear that the technology that makes Smartphones usable might be taken away.

The latest dispute between Apple and Samsung has been over arguments about patents that relate directly to Mobile Device Accessibility.  In the proceedings recently heard by a German court, Samsung argues that the VoiceOver screen access technology directly violated one of its patents pertaining to screen data.

To summarize a very complex set or legal arguments, it appears that Samsung are in possession of a patent that allows mobile devices to read text aloud to their users with the press of a button.  The company further asserted that Apple’s VoiceOver solution designed to make the Apple iOS accessible for people with vision impairment infringed their patent.

In the past companies have argued about financial compensation in such cases, what made this particular spat so worrying was that Samsung appear to have sought a ruling that would effectively have prevented Apple from providing the VoiceOver functionality on their phones, thereby making the phones inaccessible for blind or visually impaired users and also making it more difficult for dyslexic users.  
For those intrigues by the details of this case, patent consultant Florian Muller presents a detailed overview on his blog.  

It has to be a worrying development that companies are ready to deny access to not only competitor technology, but by extension access to the information or knowledge society in an effort to score points and potentially gain a short term increase in market share.

Let us hope that the judiciary and courts across the world continue, as in this recent case, to see sense and to ensure that people with a disability do not become casualties in a Smartphone war that appears to care little about consumers.

Bryan Boyle, March 2013

Reinventing the keyboard – Fleksy

Fleksy:  Can a New Keyboard Live Up to Its Name?

Image of Fleksy Keyboard
Fleksy Keyboard

 A few years ago, Bill Gates declared that the “keyboard and mouse are dead”. At the time he was referring to the advent of voice recognition, touch and gesture as a way of entering data. In practice its not been quite as simple as that, perhaps because the traditional PC has entered a period of decline, and is rapidly being replaced by a whole new generation of technologies in the form of smartphones and tablets.

Some of what Gates foresaw has come true, Siri on iPhone, along with touch on tablets has left us with little use of a mouse for these new devices, but the keyboard is still important. Its interesting to see that the new Windows 8 slates come with a keyboard, Bluetooth keyboards are available for iPads and Android Tablets, but for many people it still the on screen keyboard that offers the most used way of writing on a phone or tablet.

From the very beginning of the growth of the new devices, those on screen keyboards were a problem. Whole websites were created to present the funny things that word prediction came up with, many of which still circulate on facebook, and the keyboards themselves were often frustrating for those with a form of tremor or physical need as they required a high degree of touch accuracy for success.
Reinventing the keyboard has been a subject of a number of interesting projects over the years. Replacing the keyboard with morse code entry was one approach, “Dasher” where the predicted letters “flew” towards you on screen was another. 
Most recently “Swype” a keyboard where you used your finger to glide between letters to create words, rather than tapping at them individually, was very widely used and in fact held the record for the fastest text messaging solution for some time. But at CSUN in San Diego a new product was being demonstrated and used by a lot of the delegates I met.

Fleksy is without doubt a great example of an innovation, and effort to “reinvent the wheel” which actually gives us a better wheel. It has a very simple premise, when we type we type words in patterns, those patterns are often quite distinct combing numbers of letters with location on a preset grid or keyboard layout. Taking this as its starting point, it allows you to start typing, typing at speed, on the keyboard provided. Don’t look at what you are typing, just keep going, and Felksy recognizes the patterns of touches you are making and converts those into words. Its possibly the first real touch typing app for mobile devices.

And it works amazingly well, coupled with a pretty smart word prediction tool, and some voice output it allows you to type really quickly, it’s a hundred times more effective than the build in keyboard on my iPhone and within 5 minutes of using it I was sold! 
At CSUN I was clearly not the only one who has bought into this either, and those people using Fleksy included people with tremor (its very forgiving of slight variations in keypresses) People with Dyslexia (the gestures plus prediction mean you don’t have to look at the leters and words as they form) and people who were blind. The combination of swipe gestures with voice output makes this a great form of input for people with little or no sight.

So everyone was very excited, but a problem still exists. In this case its to do with Apple. 
Apple will not allow you to replace their keyboard with Fleksy, which means that when you open your email and hit “reply” the Apple keyboard is still the default. Which is frustrating, when you have better option installed. Instead you have to open Fleksy, type your message and then send the text to an app. Once you are in that app then you are back to Apples keyboard. That really irritating and an example of how Apple’s tight ecosystem can stifle innovation rather than facilitate it.

I guess at some point this will change, or we may only end up with a fully functioning, usable Fleksy on Android or Windows, only time will tell. But until then, download Fleksy (its free) and start to explore – I promise you will never want to use anything else – at least not this week !   

Mr David Banes, Mada CEO
March 2013.

Understanding one another without a lingua franca: Deaf people’s apptitude for cross-cultural communication

Finding a Universal Language: A Building Block on the Road to Assistive Technology for the Deaf Community in Qatar

In February 2013, Mada asked our friend and colleague Ms Cathy McCormack to visit Doha so as to assist in our efforts to develop a comprehensive service plan to better serve the Assistive Technology Needs of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Communities in Qatar.  Following her visit, we asked her to contribute some short blog pieces outlining her experiences as a person visiting and engaging with the Deaf Community.  This blog, her first, recounts her experiences and provides an insight to her perspectives on what she found during her time here.
Cathy McCormack Meets Mr. Ali Sinari from Qatar Social Club for the Deaf
Cathy McCormack and Ali Sinari from QSCCD - February 2013

"Walking into the Qatar Social and Cultural Centre for the Deaf in Doha, I immediately felt my shoulders relax. Surrounded by hearing people and spoken English and Arabic for the previous two days, I was looking forward to spending a little time with my global Deaf peers (the capital letter ‘D’ denotes culturally Deaf, i.e. those deaf or hard-of-hearing people who share a cultural affinity, identity and language—sign language).

I have no Arabic Sign Language, so you might think I approached this evening with a degree of trepidation, but in fact the complete opposite was true—I knew that the absence of a lingua franca would prove to be no barrier to Deaf-to-Deaf communication.

As an Irish Deaf person who has studied at Gallaudet University, I have Irish Sign Language (my native sign language) and American Sign Language. Gallaudet University is a bilingual (American Sign Language and English) Higher Education Institute in the United States of America that delivers advanced education programs for deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing people through bilingual instructional methods. Through my involvement in Deaf sport (European Deaf Games, Deaflympics and World Deaf Golf Championships), I have also acquired International Sign (an international auxiliary language, which is not as conventionalized or complex as natural sign languages).

Bryan Boyle, Head of Resource Centre at Mada (Qatar’s Assistive Technology Centre), had engaged my services to assist him to make a connection with the Deaf community in Qatar and to begin to establish a working relationship with the community to identify their assistive technology priorities. The Deaf Community “comprises those deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals who share a common language, common experiences and values and a common way of interacting with each other and with hearing people. The most basic factor determining who is a member of the deaf community seems to be what is called 'attitudinal deafness'. This occurs when a person identifies him/herself as a member of the deaf community and other members accept that person as part of the community” (Baker & Padden, 1978, p. 4).

According to the World Federation of the Deaf, there are about seventy million deaf people worldwide who use sign language. Sign language has a phonology, morphology, syntax and grammar distinctive from spoken languages, but it is not an international language—each country has its own sign language (in fact, sometimes a country may have two or more sign languages). However, there are universal features in sign languages, for example an extensive formal system of classifiers (classifiers are used to describe things and they transfer well across linguistic barriers); this makes it possible for users of different sign languages to understand each other far quicker that users of different spoken languages can.

Bryan and I were ushered upstairs to meet with Ali Obaid Al-Sanari (Chairman of the Qatar Social and Cultural Centre for the Deaf). There was a sign language interpreter present to translate between Arabic Sign Language and spoken Arabic and English, but within approximately five minutes Ali (who has travelled extensively and has copious experience communicating with international Deaf peers) and I had dispensed with the need for the interpreter and were communicating through International Sign.

It is very difficult to describe the feeling when two Deaf minds meet through International Sign; it feels like every neuron and synapse in your brain is firing as you receive and express information through a visual-gestural-(tactual) (sign) medium. What I think would be impossible for two hearing people without a shared spoken language to achieve was achieved within half an hour of our conversation starting—Ali communicated clearly and succinctly the Qatari Deaf community’s assistive technology priorities:
  • ·         Video remote interpreting systems to enable and enhance face-to-face communication between Deaf sign language users and hearing non-sign language users.
  • ·         Telecommunication systems to enable and enhance communication between Deaf sign language users.
  • ·         Telecommunication systems to enable and enhance communication between Deaf sign language users and hearing non-sign language users.
  • ·         Alarm and alerting systems to enable deaf and hard-of-hearing people’s awareness and recognition of the mosques’ call to prayer for Qatar prayer times throughout each day.
  • ·         Alarm and alerting systems to enable deaf and hard-of-hearing people’s awareness and recognition of audible horns from motor vehicles.
  • ·         Alarm and alerting systems to enable deaf and hard-of-hearing people’s awareness and recognition of auditory sounds in their homes, particularly the crying of a baby.

These assistive technology priorities will now form the basis of Mada’s work with the Deaf community over the coming year(s). It is heartening to see a model of work where a government agency operates on the disability studies’ principle of ‘nothing about us without us’ (Charlton, 1998). I think this attitude and approach bodes well for collaborative projects between these two agencies and I will look forward to seeing the implementation of assistive technology solutions to address all of the above Deaf community priorities.

Bryan and I were then brought downstairs to meet other members of the Deaf community and we were invited to 
  1. give a presentation  about Mada and the potential of Assistive Technology, 
  2. to discuss the assistive technology priorities that Ali had identified and
  3.  to facilitate a forum for questions and answers between the Deaf community members and the Mada representatives present.

I switched from International Sign to American Sign Language for this part of the evening, because not all of the Deaf community members present had experience communicating through International Sign. It was possible to communicate with them through American Sign Language because one of the community’s members, Maher Abu-Khader, has also studied at Gallaudet University. This means that he has American Sign Language in addition to his native sign language—Arabic Sign Language. So, I signed my presentation in American Sign Language and Maher translated it into Arabic Sign Language for the Deaf community members present and when they had a question or comment they signed it in Arabic Sign Language and Maher translated it to American Sign Language for me.

Not one word of Arabic or English was spoken.

It on night’s like this that I am so, so proud to be Deaf."

Cathy McCormack; March 3, 2013

Baker, C. & Padden, C. (1978). American Sign Language-A Look at Its History, Structure and Community. Tx, USA: T.J. Publishers, Inc.

Charlton, J. I. (1998). Nothing about us without us: Disability oppression and empowerment. Ca, USA: California University Press.

World Federation of the Deaf communiqué on Sign Language available at http://wfdeaf.org/human-rights/crpd/sign-language

Cathy McCormack
Expert Consultant to Mada (Qatar’s Assistive Technology Centre); 2013
Fulbright Scholar in Deaf Studies; 2005
M.Sc. in Administration from Gallaudet University, Washington D.C., United States of America; 2006
B.Sc. (Hons) in Occupational Therapy from the University of Dublin, Trinity College, Republic of Ireland; 1996
PG Cert in Assistive Technology Applications from University College Dublin, Republic of Ireland; 1999

Monday, February 25, 2013

Technology, disability and raising awareness

Access Ability at the San Diego Museum of Man

image of girl with physical disability riding an adapted bike.
A Public Exhibition Focused On Accessibility

I’m fortunate this week to be attending the CSUN event in San Diego, which is the largest AT related conference in the world with over 5000 professionals in the field with a great focus on eAccessibility and the needs of the blind. It’s a great location to meet with people in the field, exchange ideas and share resources, but the truth is it has a limited impact on people outside of the world of access to technology. But whilst here I took an opportunity to visit the San Diego Museum of Man, which was addressing very similar issues, but in a very different way.

Access Ability is a public exhibition which is seeking to raise awareness of “many ways to do the same thing” It is targeted upon children and families and is loosely divided into two types of activity. The first part offers people the chance to use some of the technologies that help people with a disability, you can print your name in Braille, try out a high tech sports wheelchair in race simulation, try to navigate a maze with a white cane and a mask and a range of tools such as communications aids. The kids I saw were fascinated by some of the items on display, especially trying to get up a ramp in a wheelchair and through closed door, you could see how they began to understand how much difference the slope on a ramp makes, and how an automatic door opener makes it possible to get into a room which otherwise was almost impossible.

The second area asked the visitors to think about different ways to do the same thing. There were a range of stories by young people about what they used to help them do the same thing as everyone else, and some fun things to try. One exhibit had different door handles and asked people to think about which were easiest to manipulate, another showed adapted cooking utensils whilst a third showed how the same information could be made available in different formats to help young people to learn.
Whilst it was designed to be interactive and fun, the exhibition was hugely informative and helped children shape ideas and attitudes towards design for all which will be of great value to  people with a disability in the future.

If this exhibit challenged young minds, elsewhere in the museum, issues around disability were also being raised. Open questions were asked in the future of mankind section about the ethical issues around gene therapy for conditions such as Parkinson's disease, and a debate about how far would people like to see technology enhancing human abilities, both for the whole population and for people with a disability specifically. For instance the use of artificial hips and cochlear implants is now widely accepted, but are we happy with the idea of robotic eyes for the blind, or though controlled prosthetic limbs? Flicking through some of the thoughts people had, its clear that not everyone  approved, including some people with a disability who feared a culture of enforced surgery, and being blamed for being disabled if they weren't prepared to undergo the required procedures.
Image of Person's Head in Profile with Glasses Linked to Embedded Technology
Where is the boundary for Assistive Technology in a Modern Age? 

I left the museum (which was highly accessible in itself) with many questions. I would have loved to have seen a historical perspective on aids for people with a disability included, something which gave a sense of the pace of progress, but I also wondered if such an exhibition would be valuable and have an impact in Doha, what are your thoughts?      

David Banes, Mada Center CEO

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

World Federation for Deaf Calls on the efforts to unify Arabic Sign Language to Cease.

Unifying Arabic Sign Language?

Image of arabic signs for characters in the Arabic language
Can a Living Language be Standardized?

In a strongly worded statement, from June of last year, the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) have expressed their concern regarding recent efforts to unify Arabic Sign Language, claiming that such a move is a violation of the linguistic human rights of Deaf People in the region. 

Their objections to the unification process go back some time, in 2009 the group representing approximately 70 million deaf people worldwide, penned an open letter where it documents what it claims are efforts to unify Sign Language in Arab Countries. 
Efforts for the unification of Arabic Sign Language appears to be have been underway for quite some time.  In 2004, the Council of Arab Ministers for Social Affairs (CAMSA) a committee within the League of Arab States  stated that the unification of Arabic Sign Language was “to meet the needs of integration of deaf persons into society” (CAMSA 2004).

How will all of this effect services for People who are Deaf or have Hearing Impairment in this region?
If the experience of the Deaf community is anything like other social and political groups, this level of discord usually results in two outcomes, first a reluctance of policy makers to enable any meaningful change, and secondly, new developments for the community will be isolated and will be difficult to disseminate as widely as is required.

Meanwhile as the debate continues, developments in IT and Telecoms infrastructure and further work on services for people who are deaf may provide independent opportunities for ordinary citizens who are deaf to play an ever growing role in Arab society, and perhaps, influence the debate directly.  

There was a time when using a computer was ......(part 3)

About how will we use new technology?

Future Technology - man interacts will hologram
Will Technology go Minority Report on us?
“After growing wildly for years the field of computing appears to be reaching its infancy”
John R Pierce, Bell Labs, 1910 - 2002

The definition of technology has changed over the years from computers to information technology (IT) to information and communication technology (ICT) and so on.  Microprocessors’ are ubiquitous, it has become difficult to find devices that are classified as technology that do not have a microprocessor at the core of its operation.  
Back in 1999, when we all lived in fear of the impending doom of the Y2K bug, it started to dawn on us that no matter what our opinion was or our personal feelings about computers, there were very few places left on Planet Earth where we could avoid them.

We now consider ourselves ICT users, if we use a Smartphone, access the web on a mobile device, use APPS, type an e-mail on our laptop, or sit at our desks to upload our photos to a cloud based storage drive.

The number of ways we now interact with ICT has also changed because the nature and breadth of the devices has changed.  It could be argued, that we now need to be able to type, use a mouse, interact with a touch screen (of varying size and shape).

Arguably, it took the advent of the iPad to move ICT from the desk into people’s hands.  It opened the possibility of using technology in a way that does not involve clumsy peripherals.  Moving the keyboard and mouse to the side of the access debate has introduced the world of ICT to a much younger audience, seeing children of 2 and 3 years in a car or on a plane journey is now a common sight.  Making Smartphones a gateway device for the Internet and services such as Twitter, Facebook, newsfeeds etc., has also drawn older users into the ever widening ICT family.

It could easily be argued that we are at a junction, where the future of how ICT is used is standing at a crossroads.  We encounter arguments that people will continue to use desktops and laptops as “office” machines - will there even be such a thing as an "office", let alone an "office machine".  
Will a tablet device require a keyboard to be useful and who will win the "Battle of the APPS" to become the dominant mobile operating system.   
The analogy of the crossroads may not in this case be the most accurate; rather it might be better to describe the situation like a tree, waiting for the conditions required to allowfor the emergence of new branches. 

There was a time when using a computer was ......(Part 2)

Making ICT Mobile

"The great thing about a computer notebook is that no matter how much you stuff into it, it doesn't get bigger or heavier"
Bill Gates - Microsoft Founder

Reading the Steve Jobs biography recently, there was a story mentioned where Jobs in a team meeting during the early days of the Macintosh development in the early 1980’s, produced a little notebook and claimed that this was his dream for personal computers.  
  I remember my first laptop, shared amongst an entire department of 12 people and considered so precious that I had to sign it in and out of the office.  At the time, I remember arguments from people that they would never replace the desktop computer, because people liked sitting at a desk to do their work, or that it would encourage people to work at home.

Hobbyist computer users in particular were appalled, why would anyone create a motherboard where you couldn’t change expansion cards, add memory to slots, etc.?  At one point a previous manager I had in his wisdom decided to buy us all Luggable Computers (does anyone remember these?), these were often referred to as “Lunchboxes”, although mine resembled a Sewing Machine, and weighed in at around 12 kilos, to there wasn’t anything very portable about this particular generation of portable computers.

Thankfully Laptops came down in price (and size!!!!), and lo and behold, people started to realize that using a computer might not require a desk as an essential extra.

For people with a disability, particularly those with Communication Needs, laptops offered a whole new realm of opportunities; communication from a wheelchair, communication at home, at school, in McDonalds.  It also opened opportunities for software designers to move communication software to a cheaper, mass produced device that had more processing power than the old dedicated devices that were created solely as dedicated communication devices.

It also presented the opportunity to provide a person who couldn’t speak to use their personal communication device as a tool for learning, a writing tool, a means of accessing the Internet and of communicating with people at a distance.  Laptops, in effect began to make realistic the concept of having a multifunctional device for people with a disability at relatively low cost.

There were a couple of pretty disastrous forays into the world of Tablet Computers.  Anyone remember, Microsoft Tablet?  I do remember visiting a trade show and everyone marveling at how wonderful it might be to use a computer with a keyboard, or hey presto, with a pen.  I remember my first thought was, “I know I’d lose that pen”!

There was a time when using a computer was.......

The Desktop

Imagine of Computer on sale in a Garden
You Cant Even Give It Away!

“There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home”

Ken Olsen, President Digital Equipment, 1977

During the heyday of the Home Computer, being able to use a computer meant that you had to be able to read off screen and use a keyboard or mouse.

Working with people with a disability, effectively we just looked at alternatives to these.  
In the case of people who couldn’t read off a screen, we proposed using Screenreading Software.  For people who couldn’t use a keyboard or a mouse effectively, we looked for hardware alternatives, one handed keyboards, rollerballs and joysticks instead of the standard mouse.  We replace like for like, often without radically changing the way the computer is used or is intended to be used.

Even for people with significant physical disabilities, those that required using a switch to access the computer, effectively what we have done in the past in replaced the traditional keyboard and mouse combination with a switch and a software alternative to both of these items of hardware.
During the early proliferation of computers, particularly in schools, there was an obsession with teaching typing skills.  It seemed for a while that the best hope a person with a disability had in terms of getting a career was to learn to type. 

We were still awfully precious about using computers, mainly because they were (certainly in schools) a rare and much desired commodity.  One colleague of mine, on recommending a Mini Keyboard for children with motor disabilities would often photocopy the keyboard and provide that to the child in question for a few months so that they could practice their typing skills without damaging the precious keyboard.  In the early days of using technology, for children with a disability there was often a sense that they had to earn the right to use such a device, or demonstrate their worth by performing trials of fire in therapy or in class over a series of months.  I also remember at the time, teachers and therapists recommending that children with a disability should at least be in secondary school before they consider using computers.

The real effect of this was that it meant that we, the so called, experts told people with a disability how they should use ICT and for what.  Because ICT was expensive and still considered a luxury for the bright and able, it meant we also had a significant influence not just on how and for what people with a disability used a computer but also where and for how long.

Extending Eye Gaze Technology for Natural Writing

Abstract Image of EYEGAZE Technology

Using Eye Gaze control systems has become a realistic option for providing computer access for people with severe physical disabilities.  For people with very minimal, controlled movement for example people with Locked In Syndrome or Motor Nuerone Disease (Amylotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), such technology has provided access to communication, entertainment, safety, home control as well as the standard functions offered by computers.

Eye Gaze Control systems work by using a range of cameras mounted in a computer monitor to track your eyes as they move.  The computer then, after a period of training, associated this movement with the movement of the cursor on screen thus giving the person control over the mouse.  
Clicking is controlled either by the person blinking, or alternatively dwelling in an area until the mouse automatically clicks.

Typically a person who wants to type, would use this system to control a virtual keyboard on screen by moving their eyes, and consequently the mouse to a particular letter and then selecting the letter by clicking. 

Such a mechanism for typing is obviously very slow, however, new research by neuroscientist Jean Lorenceau at the Pierre-and-Marie-Curie University in Paris, France, has found a way to write onscreen using your eyes by using an optical illusion called "reverse phi motion". The reverse phi effect means that moving your eye in any direction while looking at the screen makes it appear as if an on-screen dot is moving in that same direction, this makes it possible to trace shapes onscreen in a continuous movement, thus providing a person with the opportunity to draw letters, numbers and even pictures.

Such developments could see people with significant motor disabilities extend how they use computers, giving opportunities for a more creative expression through writing or indeed producing art.

For more information click on the link below:

For profiles of people with a disability using this technology click on the link below:

Need for Increased Use of Hearing Loops in Public Spaces

Hearing Loop Symbol
International Symbol for Hearing Loop

The need for increased awareness and use of Induction Hearing Loops has been highlighted in a recent report pointing at the slow adoption of this useful and relatively low cost technology, particularly in the US.
As we live longer lives surrounded by the sounds of traffic, construction and loud music in public, the rate of hearing loss in the general population has steadily risen, with more and more people using small discrete hearing aids to assist them on a day to day basis. A Hearing Aid is a device which typically fits in or behind the wearer's ear, and is designed to amplify sound. 

One of the problems reported by Hearing Aid users is that in noisy, open or public spaces all of the ambient noise is amplified, and therefore it is difficult to focus on particular sounds, like the sound of someone speaking, public announcements etc.  The technology is an Induction-Loop System (known as a Hearing Loop), whereby electromagnetic waves produced by a microphone, public address system or telephone receiver induce a current in the loop. The loop can broadcast the signals directly to a hearing aid equipped with an appropriate detector—specifically, a tiny copper telecoil wire, which picks up the signal (also via induction) and then sends it for amplification and transmission out of the earpiece.
Audio Induction Loops or telecoils have been described as “Wi Fi for Hearing Aids in that they  allow audio sources to be wirelessly broadcast to a hearing aid, which makes it easier for  the wearer to filter out background noise. They can be used with telephones, FM systems (with neck loops), and induction loop systems (also called "hearing loops") that transmit sound to hearing aids from public address systems and TVs.

In order for a Hearing Aid user to avail of a hearing loop in a building or public space, their Hearing Aid must be fitted with a T-Switch or must be programmed to be compatible with such loop systems.  Following the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act in the UK, every public building, wherever it is reasonable to do so, must fit a Hearing Loop in order to make their activities accessible for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities.
It is clear however, that the need for similar work elsewhere in the world is now more important than ever.  This has been highlighted by the recent “Get in the Hearing Loop” campaign by the American Academy of Audiologists.

For Qatar, there appears to be much work to be done, ensuring firstly that people who are hard of hearing know about and understand the benefits of Hearing Aids and secondly increasing the awareness amongst those responsible for buildings and public spaces, that providing a Hearing Loop can make all the difference in ensuring a more inclusive society for the country.

More information is available from: