Welcome to the Aidis Trust blog. Here you’ll find our posts on assistive technology that are meant to inform and encourage discussion. Feel free to join in!

Assistive Technology and Tablets

tablets

The Aidis Trust’s main interest is helping disabled people access technology. Since 1975, we have always dealt with all sorts of adaptations to traditional computer technology, some being weird and wonderful and some as simple as a piece of metal with holes in it. We deal with complicated, specialist software as well as simple tweaks to settings. That was then, so has anything changed?

The answer is yes and also no. Back in the day of floppy disks and cassette tapes the only form of personal computer (those not taking up whole rooms or buildings) were desktop computers. They sat on your desk (or under it). You worked the computer with a mouse and keyboard and either ran Windows or Mac OS on them. We knew where we were.

Portability

As technology developed, so did the ability to make everything smaller. Enter the laptop!

Now we could take our computer with us, on the train, on holiday. We had a built in screen, built in keyboard and mouse (track pad or that annoying nipple thing) and more importantly, a battery. This meant that we were no longer tethered to a mains supply. We were truly going places!

So, we had desktops and laptops, but no, that was too easy! Laptops started to come in many shapes and sizes and more importantly, weights. Unlike gold, laptops cost you more the less they weighed. Out with the heavy optical drive (DVD/CD drive), shrink the screen, put in a wimpy processor that didn’t need a fan to cool it down and we-hey, the net-book was born. Closely followed by it’s small desktop cousin, the net-top. Marketers were having a field day!

Merging technologies

Technology moved on again, as it always does. Whilst the home computer was going through an identity crisis, the now established mobile phone was too.

Try and explain to a teenager these days that people used to use mobile phones to ‘just make phone calls’ and they’ll probably laugh and call you a weirdo. But that’s how it was. Then phones became mobile texting machines. Why talk to someone when you can type them a short message – speak to someone? Come on now! But hey, that was so yesterday. Phones are now Smart…

The Smart phone

Computer technology had now become so small that most of it could fit inside a phone. So that’s what started to happen. Yes, there were trail blazers from the likes of Blackberry and Nokia as well as PPicture of an iPhone.DA’s, palm top devices that ran a simplified version of Windows and crept under the public technology radar like a digitised ninja with pillows strapped to his feet. But the real explosion happened when style and cool met cutting edge technology and design – the IPHONE was born! Well, technically released, there weren’t any biological parts.

The iPhone was Apple’s ground-breaking venture into pulling together various devices into one. They thought, what do most people want to do with computer technology and how do we get them all into one device? They had already blown Sony’s Walkman away with their iPod, so listening to music was simple. The iPod was the size of a phone and had a screen, so the phone part wasn’t too hard. But what about the Internet, email and playing games? Well, for this they needed to box it bit more cleverly.

Enter Apple’s IOS – an entirely new operating system for their new iPhone with the ability to write all sorts of cool software for it, like games and internet browsers. But hey they invented a new operating system, so why not invent a new term – the App. Short for application, that is short for software application, so they didn’t really invent the term, they just shrank it like everything else. We Brits had a hand in it too, we developed the battery that powered the hungry little beast. However, the keyboard just took up so much room and how would you emulate a cursor for our new handheld computer?

How touching 🙂

Touchscreens had been around for some years. The Aidis Trust had been talking about them for ages, as a good alternative to a mouse, often for people with cognitive issues that prevented them from mastering a mouse and so worked well as a mouse alternative. Simply put, touching an area on a touchscreen, tells the computer/phone/device that you have navigated to that point and clicked the mouse button.

We’ve gone too small?

Picture of an iPad and iPhone.Irony can apply to technology too. We ended up with phones so small that it was becoming almost impossible to use them as anything but making telephone calls. Imagine that. The screens were too small to comfortably view web pages, well for more than in just an emergency, and when you had to call up the keyboard to take its place on the screen, things got really crowded on there. So, like most kids at a MacDonald’s, they decided to ‘go large’.

Apple again took the bull by the horns and developed the iPad, proving that not only could they take their outselling smartphone and blow it up in size, but they could also demonstrate that you can put almost any word after the letter ‘i’ and get away with it. The iPad had a whopping 10.1 inch screen, allowing the Internet to be up-sized and web designers to come back out of therapy.

Have we spotted the best piece of irony yet? You couldn’t make a phone call on the iPad. The ‘All-in-one’ solution was side-tracked. Apple didn’t care, they just started selling loads of iPhones and iPads – corporate happy days!

Too much Apple?

Apple were dictating almost every way that we accessed technology. They had never managed to bury the PC market though. They still didn’t have a workable solution to such tasks as writing reports and do homework. Laptops and desktops still held onto this area.

But every dog has its day and Apple’s old adversaries such as Samsung and Sony as well as some new players such as Google (with PC manufacturer Asus) and Amazon were watching, waiting and more importantly, developing.

The term tablet was about to explode onto the scene. Enter the Samsung Galaxy, the Google Nexus and the Kindle Fire amongst others. These new tablets could never ‘out-cool’ the Apple devices, they would die trying. No, they would out price the iPad and snuggle cozily in between it’s 10.1 inch screen and the smart phones tiddly screens. They would find the sweet spot of the 7 inch screen – not too big that it had to have its own bag and not too small that an extra annual trip to the opticians was needed.

The main obstacle to beating Apple on price was the operating system. They couldn’t use Apple’s IOS as this would allow Apple to call the shots, as well as continue to profit from their App outlet store – iTunes, where they make a hefty percentage on all non-free Apps. No, the other kids on the block needed a cheap operating system and a way to generate their own market places for Apps. We now said a big hello to ANDROID!

Has it all got a little out of hand?

Not only have Samsung, Google/Nexus and so on been able to add competition into the market, they have also managed to split the market. People used to get confused when there were only 2 opposing operating systems – Microsoft’s Windows and Apple’s Mac OS. Now we have a list:

  • MacOS
  • Apple IOS
  • Android
  • Microsoft Windows

Yes, Windows is still there, but even Microsoft have decided to mix and match by releasing Windows 8 RT and Windows 8 Pro. The RT version will only run Windows Apps (not software applications, as in the things that came on disks), no you need Windows 8 Pro that will run both.

Android is a free, open source operating system (a term for software for which the source code is freely available). But Amazon have taken advantage of this by making Android running on their Kindle Fire devices only run Apps that have been purchased through their App store and now Windows tablets are starting to rush the barricades with their Apps and even Microsoft, for the first time in their history, are building hardware and BOOOOM!!! We have a technology explosion! Run for cover!

Access all areas?

Picture of iPads and Switches.I almost forgot what my job was. I went all mainstream there, sorry. So, what effect does all this have on disabled people accessing technology, to take advantage of what most people are able to such as web sites, email, Skype and so on?

Well, as always it’s down to the effect of their disability. Just having a disability doesn’t automatically mean that they have to use alternative devices. Put plainly, if the effect of their disability makes accessing the devices difficult or impossible through the method the manufacturer intended, then we need some assistance – Assitive Technology.

A vast plethora of Assistive Technology has been developed for devices running Windows (the full version, currently called Pro). Stands to reason, Windows had been the operating system of choice for many years. Both specialist hardware and software solutions have been developed and Microsoft themselves have put a lot of work into supporting certain access issues over the years into Windows. But what support is there for the other operating systems? Let’s take a look.

Apple IOS (runs on iPads and iPhones)

No USB support means you can’t plug any mice, rollerballs, joystick and so on into them. They don’t have a cursor on the screen, so you couldn’t see where you were pointing at to click anyway. IOS’s Assistive Touch settings can assist some who have mild difficulty in using the touchscreen interface. Some companies are trying to tout switch access for IOS, but for general access, outside of a selected few switch adapted Apps, the adapted interface is labored at best.

The blind and visually impaired are better catered for. The Voice Over setting brings in screen reading (which could also be used by those with literacy difficulties). It alters the way you interact with the touchscreen, where the usual ‘1 tap to open’ interface is now used to ‘select and read’, with double tapping replacing the 1 tap open command. For those who could benefit from screen magnification, double tapping and dragging with 3, yes 3 fingers will activate and control the zoom function.

Much has been said about the speech recognition on the iPhone. The support is far from device-wide and needs an Internet connection to work, as it sends the voice data off to be processed before being sent back to be turned into text. Don’t be surprised if your question of ‘is there a public toilet near by?’ is answered ‘I think it will rain today, better take a coat’.

Android (runs on practically all tablets under £350 and some that cost more)

Android use ‘fluffy’, sweet-related names for their versions of Android. Unlike Apple who use numbers (1, 2, 3 etc) for their iOS, though felt that after version 10 of their Mac OS they needed to name them after wild cat (Snow Leopard and Mountain Lion to name but a couple). Will Tabby ever be released? Windows however, use no discernible pattern at all (98, XP, Vista, 7, 8). We have had Cupcake, Ice cream Sandwich and currently Jellybean. The main problem here is the frequency of the updates. Android was commercially released in 2008 and has since gone through a whole bakery of major updates, at least 9 when this article was written and probably 10 when you read it.

Currently Android has a screen reader (now called TalkBack and Explore by Touch) similar to that of IOS’s Voice Over. The voice is pretty good as well but that is where the accessibility options started and finished until the introduction of Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean). Android now has screen magnification that can be switched on and off by triple tapping with the 2 finger pinch gesture controlling the level of magnification and 2 finger swipe to scroll round the current screen. Unfortunately, there is precious little other support currently within Android. This may change in about 5 or 6 updates when Android’s Diet or Dentist version is released (I made this up of course, but all that sweet stuff must have a consequence).

Windows (most PC’s in the country and an increasing number of tablets of iPad cost and up)

This is where a maPicture of a Windows tablet.jority of support for disability-related access issues lie. Let’s face it, Windows has history and stability when it comes to control over its development (I’m not going anywhere near PC-based open source operating systems, such as Ubuntu here, though I’m sure others will).

Not only will you find a whole section on keyboard and mouse settings, you’ll also find a free screen magnifier which is pretty good up x4, screen reader, pretty good if you have nothing else. Since Windows Vista, now find free speech recognition that is very good as well as a whole host of 3rd party software that is free, up to the ludicrously expensive.

Because you have full USB support, you also have a whole range of adapted mice, keyboards and much more. One of our free services is that of talks and demonstrations to groups around the range of adaptations that are available for various operating systems – we have a lot to talk about with Windows, believe me.

Apple Mac OS (runs on Apple Mac computers)

Apple have an equally long history to that of Microsoft. However, I think it is fair to say that the Mac OS hasn’t enjoyed the same amount of 3rd party support when it comes to accessibility. A pretty good built-in screen reader and magnification. Speech recognition too. But if it’s variety you’re after, Windows seems to knock it well off top spot.

A new major talking point

For many years now, PC-based communication devices have existed at the dizzying heights of the £5,000 to £7,000 mark. One could say that the main influence that the tablet market has had so far to the area of Assistive Technology has been to help the disabled with verbal communication, or AAC (Alternative Augmentative Communication). It has slashed the prices down to around £600 for those using the iPad platform and has done a pretty good job of emulating the PC equivalent. That’s why we currently dedicate a whole selection of our website to in-depth reviews on the Apps that work on tablets, as well as recently developing our new Communication Workshop, where we travel around the UK to deliver free talks and demonstrations around on the topic.

We seem to be the only source on the Internet for independent reviews on communication Apps. We have regular contact with many of the developers, though it is always our intention of being able to empower people to make an informed decision when purchasing or acquiring communication Apps, as it always has been for more traditional forms of Assistive Technology.

Anyway, enough of the trumpet blowing, let’s bring this to a conclusion.

The Conclusion!

No one has managed to better the good, old mouse and keyboard for performing repetitive tasks. People at work (in offices) and children doing school work are still using a good old fashioned mouse and keyboard to do the task. Touchscreens can be a great alternative for performing short tasks or tasks on the move. It’s a case of getting the right tool for the right job. However, when we bring access issues through a disability into the picture, then it’s less ‘black and white’.<!–more–>

For many disability-related access issues, such as tremors, limb dysfunction, visual impairment and so on, Windows still offers the best support (with Apple OS coming in second). With the introduction of new lines of tablets running Windows 8 Pro, this also gives a mobile solution for some as well.

There are some that could gain from using iPads, iPhones and Android devices, though less so. Unless your main aim is to have verbal communication support and then it can be a closer-run match.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution, because every person is unique as is the way that their disability can affect them. That’s why we still deliver talks throughout the UK and offer advice through our helpline and website.

This article has been written to try and explain that whilst technology is available to help overcome some issues that people with disabilities face and that this area is indeed growing by the day. That where choice exists, so does confusion. If you feel that either you, or someone you care for or support may benefit from technology (most do), please, please feel free to give us a call. It is our job to de-mystify technology for the disabled. We don’t charge anything for what we do, so why not contact us for a tailored discussion for your technology needs or to inquire about our workshops, where we visit you as part of a group. We don’t sell anything either, so you can rest assured that we have no agenda for giving the services that we do.

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