Podcast: The impact of assistive technology
The Disability Download
In this episode of our The Disability Download podcast, we’re talking all things assistive tech.
Listen to our Director of Assistive Technology, Steve Tyler, tell us about the latest developments in technology, while tech blogger Glen Turner chats about the devices that have transformed his life.
We also chatted to our Chief Executive Neil Heslop about his favourite piece of assistive technology and our Policy Manager Sharlene McGee discusses the government’s Access to Work Scheme.
Steve Tyler: So, these devices and systems are becoming all embracing in many respects but amazingly they’re having a huge effect on accessibility for people with disabilities.
Glen Turner: Well it helps me in all sorts of ways, it helps me to read and consume information. It helps me to communicate with other people more easily. It helps me to do my job obviously. It helps me to go out and do activities, shopping and going round museums and going to theatres and things. It helps me to navigate around as well when I'm out and about so it just helps me in every aspect of my life. It's given me a lot of independence.
Neil Heslop: iPhone is my favourite thing simply because it isn't a phone. It is my device of choice because it opens up a huge world of possibilities for me.
Sharlene McGee: Really there is still a lot of work to happen and a long way to go in terms of making technology accessible for disabled people and ensuring that that means that they have the same opportunities when it comes to work.
Cathy Lynch: Hello and welcome to The Disability Download. The Disability Download is brought to you by pan-disability charity Leonard Cheshire. I’m Cathy Lynch.
Erin O’Reilly: And I’m Erin O’Reilly and on this podcast, we respond to current topics, share stories and open up conversations about disability.
Cathy: So Christmas has just passed, you might have got some new presents some new technology. That might have been, I don’t know, like an Amazon Alexa or an Echo, one of those small Google Dot things that talk to you and you can talk to it and play your music or watch shows. But did you know that everyday tech actually assists disabled people, in their lives? So for some people, you know an iPhone isn’t just an iPhone, it’s for loads of different things and it helps people to live their lives as independently as possible.
Erin: Definitely, I think phones are just so much more than that, they’re so much more than just a phone. They can enable people to be able to understand their surroundings, to get travel updates, something as simple as reading out messages or emails. It can really transform disabled people’s lives in a way that I guess other people might not have realised.
So obviously it’s so essential in personal lives, but also really, really crucial within the workplace as well. You know assistive technology is absolutely vital in helping people to do their jobs, to adapt to their workplace surroundings, to succeed, excel, promoted I new roles, and just to create more inclusive environments as a whole anyway. So that’s why it was definitely something we really wanted to chat about on this episode of The Disability Download!
Cathy: Yeah so in this episode Erin talks with Steve Tyler, our Director of Assistive Technology. You may recognise his dulcet tones from the Lego braille bricks episode, so he’s an all-round kind of amazing assistive tech guru. So he’s part of so many developments and groups. He chats to us about the developments in assistive technology.
And Erin also chats to Glen Turner who is an online blogger known as Well Eye Never and he talks about the impact assistive tech has had on his life. Erin also chats with our Chief Executive Neil, Neil Heslop, to talk about some of his favourite assistive tech devices.
And then we also chat to our Policy Manager, Sharlene McGee, and she sort of just rounds it all of with what the government actually needs to do with its Access To Work scheme to make sure disabled people actually benefit from it from a technology perspective. So first up, let’s hear from Erin and Steve.
Erin: So Steve how do you think assistive technology will continue to develop and what main gaps you think there are in the market at the moment.
Steve: So the concept of assistive technology is gradually changing and things that we called assistive a few years ago are gradually encroaching into the mainstream which is a great thing. You know it's something that I've been battling for along with others for some time.
For me the really big changes that are happening right now are voice assistants. Voice assistance is appearing in all sorts of devices all sorts of products. The really obvious ones like Amazon's Alexa — Amazon's Echo products — and Google Home of course and a whole host of things like Cortana and things in the Microsoft ecosystem.
But I mean in the end what people were striving to reach is that idea that your devices can talk to you and you can talk to your devices, that you get sensible responses out of them and so on. And that's what trying to go for. It's going to be some time before we get there, where we get really good outcomes from those because it relies on lots of computer power at the moment and we're not understanding enough or not codifying enough around meaning and semantics of language.So it's still very easy for machines to get confused by the way you talk and they can't really figure out deeper meaning. They can figure out the words individually. Gradually that will improve.
The other really big deal which is a little bit hidden from view but it's affecting everything we do is artificial intelligence. So this idea is all about being more human in the end. Again at the moment it looks impressive but really they're algorithms. They're things that rely on rules that coders write and they're very complicated rules but nonetheless are still just machine-based rules. Can we make a system or one machine feel as if it has intelligence and you're getting as intelligent a response as you would from a human being? Again a long way off that.
But we're already beginning to see this stuff encroaching in machines being helpful making decisions for you already. Machines can fill out your tax returns, they can fill out you know, they can create a will for you. Anything that's formulaic and anything that relies on a reasonably strict framework. Things that have to be completed machines can do. I suppose it's affecting from an assistive technology point of view a key area which is everyday living. This is about the connected home, connected devices in the home.
So in my house I've got things like a robot hoover that is controllable through the voice assistant. They all connect to each other so I can say ‘Alexa ask the cleaner to clean the house’ and that's exactly what happens. And the cleaner learns and maps the house and begins to understand where things are so gets better at doing the job. And you can tell it where you don't want it to go if there are areas you don't want it to go.
I've got Nest which is a whole set of things but it includes a thermostat, it includes a door bell with face recognition and camera technology, it includes smoke detection but all of these things talk to each other and they begin to learn about your behaviour so they begin to learn about when you go out and when you come in and when you're at work as I am today in London, how long will it take me to get home? It knows those things and when I'm on the train approaching home it knows when to put the heating on or when to turn the hot water on.
So these devices and systems are becoming all embracing in many respects but amazingly they're having a huge effect on accessibility for people with disabilities. Because now with the connected home you can control that set of devices in a whole host of ways whether you want to talk to them, control them through an app. If you're using switch technology on a computer because you have a significant physical disability it doesn't matter. All of these things are operable through a whole host of different devices.
Erin: So when we're thinking about the products themselves do you think there's more that manufacturers can do to consider accessibility in the early phases of product design.
Steve: There are two golden rules for me when thinking about products. So think about right at the beginning. Think about the user experience and by definition accessibility. But think about the vast number of different types of people and need there is out there and how people are going to interact with the product that you've got.
And in thinking about that there are standards. There are ready made standards and procedures that you can use, you know. If you're developing a website there are standards built right into the web development arena. The World Wide Web Consortium in this case has a whole host of standards around HTML and how you build HTML properly and there are tools that help you deliver on accessibility.
If you're building an app there are so many support materials produced by Apple and Microsoft and Google on helping you deliver on that. A lot of it really very obvious stuff. It's about using, if you're creating an app for example and your making a button, well firstly call it a button rather than labelling it something else or not labelling it at all, and secondly use the right classification of widget in the application so that you know you're playing by the rules essentially. That's absolutely vital to do and not very onerous.
It's just that an awful lot of the time people use very automated procedures they don't really think about where they're going. They kind of experiment and if it looks okay you know that's good enough. But of course what they don't realise they're doing necessarily is barring people from using their product. I think the second golden rule is user testing so you can make the best product on the planet and use every standard in the book. But in the end you're dealing with human beings and ultimately it's got to make sense to people.
It doesn't matter if you can read everything on the screen or if you can access it in whatever way. If the product doesn't make sense or the journey that you're trying to get your customer or the user to go on isn't making sense to them, well it's just not going to work and people won't buy into it. So it's hugely important to engage users in the testing process, and of course make sure that as part of that you've got cohorts of people with disabilities trying out your stuff.
Cathy: Next, Erin catches up with Glen!
Erin: So Glen when did assistive technology first become a key part of your life?
Glen: It's always been a key part of my life because I was born visually impaired so I've always had to make use of it. I first mainly starting using it when I first went to school it really became useful to kind of you know reading things and you know I doing my work so it's just always been part of my life ever since.
Erin: And in your professional life has assistive technology always been available in the workplace or is it something you might have had to request in the past?
Glen: It's been something I've had to request. I've only had one job. I've had one job for the last 14 odd years so yeah I had to request it. Well I went through Access to Work for that.
Erin: So you have used the government's Access to Work scheme.
Glen: Yeah yeah that's been most incredibly useful. So it's opened up work to me. I wouldn't be able to do work without it really. I've had a CCTV through it, you know the video magnifier you can get, and I've had magnification software for the computer and taxi travel to and from work as well so it's come in very handy.
Erin: Wow. And how did you find out about the scheme? Was it something you kind of had researched yourself or did someone point you in the direction of it?
Glen: Someone pointed me in the direction of it I think. It might may have been I worked for a local authority so I think someone that I've been knew about it anyway. It might have been the employment agency I was with, I can't quite remember but it was quite easy to get into it.
Erin: And so when you use assistive technology day to day what are some of the most valuable ways it's affected your life and kind of benefited you?
Glen: It helps me in all sorts of ways, it helps me to read and consume information. It helps me to communicate with other people more easily. It helps me to do my job obviously. It helps me to go out and do activities, shopping and going round museums and going to theatres and things. It helps me to navigate around as well when I'm out and about so it just helps me in every aspect of my life.
It's given me a lot of independence and I haven't got to rely on other people to do the things. I can do everything by myself and in turn that's given me a lot more confidence so it just made me feel much happier about myself as a person knowing that I could go out do, you know, I'll just live my life in the same way that anyone else can with the help of this technology.
Erin: Yeah definitely. And do you have a favourite one or are they all kind of different, they benefit you in different ways?
Glen: I mean the favourite thing I have is my iPhone. I think smartphones are just amazing these days. I mean it is almost cruel to call them a phone because they're just the base. There's a huge computer in your pocket now. They do so much and it's just, yeah it's made much so much easier having that in my pocket all the time.
Erin: So that kind of leads on to my next question actually. So do you think there's enough knowledge and awareness about the wide ranging possibilities of assistive technology? So basically the fact that there are assistive elements to a lot of devices that maybe some people don't know about or wouldn't have considered?
Glen: Yeah I think there is certainly increasing awareness. I mean it's easy to say from the perspective of someone who uses the Internet and social media that you know it gets posted about it on there. A lot of people use the Internet and social media these days but equally there are people who use it so people who are elderly or people just don't access the internet for whatever reason. Other social groups I'm a member of in London where they bring people in to show people you know be accessible technology that they wouldn't otherwise know about and show them to use it. So it is important not just to rely on the Internet but to make sure that everybody is getting the information they need through those social services, local authorities or advertising in other ways to make sure that everybody is reached and nobody's let down.
Erin: Definitely. So do you think that at the moment the current range of assistive technology devices on the market are fit for purpose and are meeting people's needs. Or do you think there's room for improvement in some areas or maybe a gap in the market?
Glen: I mean I think there's a lot of technology out there now and there's probably something out there for everybody. How well it's advertised and publicised probably varies. There's always room for improvement. Technology is improving all the time. I think one of the issues more than what it is is the cost of things really.
There's some great things out there but they cost like three or four-figure sums and you know even if you're on benefits it is still very difficult to afford these things. So that's I mean I know that these things aren't mass-market produced perhaps so you know the companies perhaps can't or don't want to make them cheap but it's in their interest to make them affordable to as many people as possible. It'll bring them business really so yeah it'd be nice to see prices come down on some things.
It's also important of course to realise that some technology seems to be becoming more inaccessible in some ways which we've got to watch out for like things like washing machines and cookers are becoming more touchscreen-based which is more, which isn't at all helpful when you're visually impaired like me for instance. It's harder to find things with dials on. Things like that.
Erin: Do you think when they kind of doing product design that people really should be considering more about, you know, making it accessible from the start and perhaps maybe that is not being considered when they are trying to speed up technology and make everything more flashy and touchscreen and that kind of thing?
Glen: Yeah absolutely. Definitely, yeah I think they need to get disabled people involved from the outset. I mean the more they can consult with the community and get a sense of the needs that they have and they can build it in from the beginning and that by building accessibility for disabled people when you're building in for everybody, you're making everybody's life easier. It's like if you're building a house, if you can make that accessible for disabled people it's easier for everybody to live there. So yeah definitely get involved from the beginning. Absolutely yeah.
Erin: Well that’s great, thank you so much for that Glen!
Glen: You’re very welcome!
Cathy: And now, we listen to Neil!
Erin: So Neil in what ways has assistive technology transformed your life in recent years?
Neil: Blimey that's a big question. Transform my life? I guess assistive technology is at the very heart of everything I've been able to do both from a personal, social and leisure point of view but perhaps more importantly from a work point of view.
So for me I lost my sight when I was about 20 and so making that transition to having being fully sighted to being fully blind in education the big issue was how do you transition from university into work and what I found was that when I left university and started working in the telecoms industry in order for me to make my way in my chosen career it was absolutely critical for me to become very confident and reasonably skilled at using assistive technology, not as an end in itself, simply as a means to an end in that by doing so all sorts of things became possible. And I was able to operate in a variety of roles that without it would have just been completely impossible.
Erin: And do you think there is enough awareness about the types of assistive technology available and how do you think disabled people can get more out of the technology that's available?
Neil: Well I think there's two halves to that question. Is there enough awareness? I would say no. I think one of the great challenges is that the art of the possible is changing so fast. So I'm someone who, I've been blind now for over 30 years, what technology can do for me this week is hugely different to what it could do even 12 months ago.
So what that means is through those 30 years you've got to constantly make attempts to stay on top of new and different things. And I think that can feel a bit intimidating but once you kind of get into the swing of it I think what you learn is that if you do stay on top of it and invest some time and effort in your own skills the payback is amazing. So for individuals, I think it's really important to know about it and to have the commitment to keep yourself current, accepting that that's a huge challenge.
And then I think from the awareness point of view for employers I think when individuals are thinking about, can this individual successfully do this job, the fact that technology is moving so fast and the solutions to day to day practical problems are coming more and more every day it's a huge challenge for organisations to stay abreast of it and I think that challenge is what all organisations and all leaders in this organizations have to stand up to.
Erin: So when thinking about employment do you think there are any steps that employers should be taking to ensure that accessible technology is ingrained within their businesses rather than something they consider once there's a need for it?
Neil: Well I think the principles about inclusivity, inclusive design, are really really important. And so that just mainstream systems these days differ enormously. There are those that have been designed right from the outset with inclusivity and accessibility in mind and I think organisations can demand of their suppliers that the systems that they provide for organisations are indeed completely inclusive and accessible by design.
So I think there's a huge responsibility on organisations to get their procurement right. I think the good thing about that is that brings huge business benefits way beyond the inclusivity for people with disabilities. It's just really smart sound business when looking at your income and your costs and how you manage it.
So I think that's hugely important. I think it's hugely important for the H.R. community to keep up to date with support structures or things like Access To Work and reasonable adjustments and all those things. So I think those are a couple of practical steps that organisations can take.
Erin: And do you have a favourite piece of assistive technology at the moment?
Neil: Do I have a favourite piece of tech? Well, I guess the answer to this question is obviously very personal and very very different depending on the nature of one's disability. For me as someone with a visual impairment, the iPhone has been utterly utterly amazing because it's sort of become my window to the world and because of that principle of inclusive and accessible by design that's what Apple have done.
So for the whole ecosystem, synthesised speech, electronic Braille and some of the really sophisticated apps, if I access it through my iPhone there's just a vast array of things that I can do that previously were unthinkable from reading the paper in the morning to it telling me which bus to get on to tell me what the train departure board is saying to being able to take a picture of a printed document and read it to me. I could even stalk my kids on Twitter so iPhone is my favourite thing simply because it isn't a phone. It is my device of choice because it opens up a huge world of possibilities for me.
Erin: Thank you very much Neil.
Cathy: Finally, we chat to Sharlene about the Access to Work scheme.
Erin: So Sharlene what more do you think the government could be doing to encourage employers and people with disabilities to make more use of the Access to Work scheme?
Sharlene: Our research report from earlier this year showed us that only 23 per cent of disabled people in the UK either currently or previously working had ever received Access To Work support. And yet we know the value that Access To Work can offer for disabled people and really keep them able to stay in the workplace particularly when a condition is fluctuating or when disability or health condition first starts to emerge.
Our research also showed that when it comes to the processes behind Access To Work that there can be really lengthy processes. 69 per cent of disabled people who we spoke to had said that they had to wait up to three months for their application to be approved. And so we can imagine really how this can have a really big an impact particularly if you have perhaps just secured a job and how that job then can be jeopardised by not having the right support that you're entitled to be in place in time.
Erin: So it was recently announced that a number of influential leaders had been appointed to an Artificial Intelligence Council. With that in mind what do you think the government should be doing to ensure that assistive technology is part of key discussions and forms an integral part of the adoption of new technologies by businesses and organisations?
Sharlene: Well there is a growing awareness of what potential and what opportunities that assistive technology provides in terms of enabling disabled people to live independently and to work independently as well. And yet we are also really aware of the fact that only 22 per cent of disabled people have never used the Internet. So there are gaps there in terms of addressing skills that are needed and access to technology that still needs to happen for disabled people.
We recently hosted an event in Parliament really trying to open up the conversation on assistive technology speaking to MPs and also having the support of the Minister for Care Caroline Dinenage as well so there is real progress happening and certainly those conversations are starting to open up and involving businesses as well but really there is still a lot of work to happen and a long way to go in terms of making technology accessible for disabled people and ensuring that that means that they have the same opportunities when it comes to work and all aspects of their lives.
Erin: Thank you very much Sharlene!
Cathy: So this episode has been really exciting for us, cause it’s just really cool and assistive technology is constantly developing. So if you are developing any technology or you’re interested and you want to understand a bit more just get in touch and we’ll chat to you.
Erin: Yeah so hopefully this episode has broadened your horizons into the type of assistive technology that’s out there and that might even be in your own pockets and like Cathy said this is a topic we’re really excited about and a topic we always want to talk about and know about the latest developments in. But if there is a device or something that we’ve not talked about in this episode that you think we should know about or should be talking about, definitely get in touch with us.
Cathy: I’m Cathy Lynch
Erin: and I’m Erin O’Reilly
Cathy and Erin: and this has been The Disability Download!