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