How technology is giving disabled people new opportunities

Kay Barnes

Kay Barnes –  Assistive Technologist at our Hill House residential service in Cheshire – shows how technology offers choice and independence, and keeps people in touch.

Hill House resident using a gridpad

I love my job. I have thirty years of experience as a support worker, mainly working with disabled people. Now, my key role as Assistive Technologist is to help the residents at Hill House get the most out of technology. The aim is to provide new choices for people, so they can boost their independence and achieve their personal goals.

New possibilities

We have 22 out of our 23 current residents involved in this project. People at Hill House are relishing the opportunity to do so many things themselves as more and more options – simple, accessible solutions – become available. With the right software and tools, a single iPad or device coupled with a voice assistant like Alexa can enable people to do a lot. People can control their lighting, curtains, or music or make a call in different ways.

Several people have communication aids mounted on to their powerchairs. You might hear the phrase ‘AAC device’ or ‘AAC software’ (AAC = augmentative or alternative communication). AAC devices are anything that aids communication. Initially, it could be a board with letters, though, at Hill House, it’s often an electronic device that voices what people want to say.

Sometimes, a communication aid might be a separate electronic device like a GridPad. Nowadays, it’s often software on an iPad or tablet. So everyday devices that disabled and non-disabled people use are, literally and figuratively, helping people speak up and opening new doors.

Maintaining social connections

Throughout the pandemic, assistive technology has never been more important. People looked to maintain crucial contact with friends and family and learn new skills. Digital inclusion opens up so many opportunities. If people want to use it, we can help embed technology into their everyday lives.

As regular readers of these blogs will know, Bev is an avid tech user. She was a keen early adopter, and she hasn’t looked back! Bev uses a combination of communication tools, including an iPad with AAC software called Grid 3; she has an ‘adapted ‘stylus’ or pen and can select anything she wants. Her big favourites are card games, Kindle reading app and video calling app. She loves talking to her family on Skype – a big goal for her at the start of the project.

Bev tells us: “I love having my iPad because I can keep in touch with my family. I recently became a nana and now I can see pictures of my granddaughter!”

When he has trouble sleeping at night and needs to unwind, he projects images onto the ceiling and looks at the stars. Little things like this make a huge difference.

Controlling your environment with Alexa

Derek* was the first resident to get an Alexa voice assistant after receiving a device from his friend. When the project was in its early stages, Derek was a little hesitant but had support from us to show him what Alexa can do. I’m delighted to say that Derek is now one of the biggest advocates for the assistive tech project, really embracing it all. He gets so much out of using Alexa – controlling his TV, the LED lights on the back of his TV, his Dyson fan, and his lamp. He also loves listening to war stories via his Audible subscription and Alexa.

Rob* is another great example of someone making huge progress with Alexa. Usually, Alexa would not be able to understand his speech patterns. Rob now uses an app called Voiceitt, which he and other residents at Hill House helped to trial. Voiceitt hears the commands Rob has recorded into the app and then repeats them to Alexa.

Rob tells us: “I like the technology. Voiceitt really helps me communicate with Alexa, and I can do lots of things. I also love the Virtual Reality headsets that we have at Hill House.”

Two Hill House residents with a staff member smiling at the camera

Another resident, Callum*, has a Gridpad communication device, which he uses to select what he wants to say. Callum communicates verbally, though people who don’t know him can struggle to understand him. He hopes that when he goes out and about, whether on holiday or in the local area, he’ll be able to use this device quickly and easily to express what he wants to say.

Stars for the night

Adam* is a relatively new resident at Hill House. He told Alexa the name of his light was ‘chandelier’, so he says: ‘Chandelier on!’. Adam loves stars and the constellations, so we’ve got him a Planetarium projector. When he has trouble sleeping at night and needs to unwind, he projects images onto the ceiling and looks at the stars. Little things like this make a huge difference.

Perfect tool for bookworms

Audiobooks are a big thing for a few residents, especially Sarah*. She devours them. She has her own library on an iPad and is a huge fan of Ruth Rendell novels. She asks Alexa to play a particular title, and the books are read out on her Echo Show.

Virtual tours and visits

Virtual tours are still very popular, and people who live at Hill House are keen to find out more about all kinds of destinations in the UK and worldwide. We’ve done virtual museum tours and virtual trips around cities. And it means that both now, and indeed since the pandemic began, other people who might not be able to come into the building can still join us.

They can visit Hill House virtually, and residents like to show them the new skills they are learning. Everyone - friends, families, community groups, or people living in other Leonard Cheshire homes – has really appreciated the chance to meet and socialise. Quiz and karaoke sessions are still popular too.

A legacy for the future

This is a three-year project, and we are in the final year. We’re continually working with all staff to ensure they are up to speed. People will be using the technology long after this project finishes, and people’s needs and wishes might change. We’ve started the ball rolling with technology that is still fairly new and will keep going.

It’s been so humbling supporting the residents and watching them embrace the project. They’re clearly enjoying it, so I get loads of enjoyment as the project evolves. I have been passionate about expanding digital opportunities since I started the role. I’ve absolutely loved the chance to explore new ways to support people. Long may it continue!

* The residents of Hill House mentioned in this article are happy to share their stories. Most of the names in this article have been changed.