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!

MakerspaceUK: Making things accessible

 

Maker Space

I’ve just written a blog about 3D printing and the potential it has to significantly impact the lives of people living within the disability community. I’ve since come across a project where centres called Makerspace are springing up all over the UK and with different skills being used, there is potential for this to become big news in the world of technology for disabled people.

What is Makerspace?

Makerspace’s website describes itself as a ‘friendly club’ for ‘hackers, makers hobbyists and DIY tinkers’. There are centres all over the UK and members of the community with different areas of expertise come together to create prototypes of different things. Essentially, this is a community of inventors who experiment with software, hardware, woods, plastics, metals – you name it, they’ve used it! (I discovered this after reading the Discussion forum page for a while).

So what do they actually create?

The answer to that is anything and everything! Different members of the Space discuss things that they’ve seen which might be cool to try to either make from scratch or reproduce using a variety of techniques. These include re-programming techniques for phones and computers. For example, adapting the Raspberry PI (a credit-card sized computer) so that you can use a controller to play games on it instead of just the computer attached to the TV. This is by connecting the controller to a USB port. In addition I came across conversations about a 3D knitting machine, a rubber phone case that can be made using a 3D printer, and experimenting with ancient stuff like old Xbox games consoles to see what can be done with them – whether that is taking them apart, putting them back together or just having a look at them!

Hackers

In addition to the Makerspace community, there is also one called Hackerspace UK. When you hear the word ‘hacking’ you probably think of someone either robbing millions from a bank or getting into illegal activity. But the ‘hackers’ in this project are doing no such thing. They are using their knowledge of  computer engineering to re-program software so that it can be adapted for different uses. For example, programming Minecraft so that it can be played using a keyboard rather than a controller.

There are also people who work with computers to hack certain programs in order to gain access in different ways. Whilst this has been going for years and is not directly linked to the disability community, the possibilities that could be looked into here are endless. For example, could someone hack into a computer game to edit its system and remap the controls or commands to make it more accessible for disabled people? Or could they hack in and create a speech override so that you could hear what characters are saying as well as it being written on the screen? Indeed the same could potentially be done with closed captions, overriding speech to include writing on the screen where normally there would be none in a particular videogame. To go one step further, could graphics and/or contrast be hacked into with computers or online games so that they could be made more accessible to disabled people by giving completely customisable options in and outside of gameplay? Given that Makerspace is already doing some encoding work around the popular computer game Minecraft, could this be the answer to accessible gaming with a bit of re-mapping, programming and a tiny bit of hacking?

They also discuss various ways to override phone software and phone networks, so this could be another way to make calling and texting more accessible to those with disabilities on a whole range of spectrums. Examples include hearing and visually impaired people, those with limited movement and/or mobility and those with cognitive, neurological and/or learning disabilities. This software programming and hacking has the ability to benefit those with disabilities – coloured filters could be put onto screens, 3d printed keyboard guards, new plastic moulded accessible switches etc. The communities built up around Maskerspace and Hackerspace have the potential to support a lot of disabled people.

Makerspace and Hackerspace

Whether these two groups are affiliated or linked in any way isn’t very clear; however, it is obvious that both are trying to achieve the same end result: to experiment with different ways of creating or adapting either software of hardware to different people’s preferences or needs. There is some evidence to suggest that the Makerspace and Hackerspace communities are connected in some areas and in some they are not – for example, in Southampton the two seem affiliated and seem to work closely with each other on many projects (somakeit.org.uk). Personally, if I was to go about finding out about either, I would contact Makerspace first to see what they could advise or help me with. Then I would find out whether Makerspace and Hackerspace are connected and go from there.

What can I do there?

This will vary from centre to centre on an individual basis. However, there are certain events that I have been reading about such as:

Tinker Tuesday (DIY), 3D Thursday (3D Printing), Solder Sunday.

Times, places and days may be different depending on which centre you go to – this is how they operate in the centre in the North East of England. In addition to these events, there are visiting times and drop in sessions (for the North East of England the Drop In is on a Wednesday 6pm-8pm). There are also links on the website to allow you to contact staff there at any time you would like to discuss things with them. On the website, it states that centres have disability access.

Making Contact

It is made very clear on both Makerspace and Hackerspace that both platforms welcome newcomers and fresh ideas to their organisations. You can contact them either through the discussion boards or by emailing the administrators – the administrators regularly check and respond to different discussion threads on the discussion boards. If you wanted to get straight through to an administrator or project organiser, then start with emailing the site directly. However, the good thing about using one of the discussion threads is that this allows other users of the site to contact you as well so they might have extra ideas that you hadn’t thought of. The community seem like a very friendly bunch and from what I can tell from reading, one that is incredibly open to trying new things out. So if you have an idea for an accessible project or adaptation, contact them. Chances are your project could help people with and without disabilities all over the UK – and how great would that be?

This is all well and good, but what’s in it for the disability community?

To start the answer to this question Cliff Leach, a 59-year-old from Salisbury, was one of the founders of the Salisbury centre. According to the Salisbury Journal, he became paraplegic after a road accident 36 years ago, and works for REMAP, a charity that designs and adapts bespoke products for disabled people. Given that he is one of the founders of this centre, it is obvious that the project is not only open and accepting of disabled people but is wanting to change their lives for the better using various technology, software, and equipment. Cliff verifies this by saying that the project will benefit both ‘individuals and groups’ and that he hopes that the project will bring inventors, engineers and software/hardware developers together, whilst also decreasing social isolation.

With the incoming evidence that 3D printing techniques are also on the rise, being that they have even used them to create a 3d printed hand for a young girl, it is obvious that projects like this are desperately needed in order to not only experiment with new-found ways of using technology but also to educate people about the fact that such technology even exists. With Makerspace and Hackerspace groups popping up around the country, there is a good opportunity for disabled people to get invlolved. It is clear to me that the project welcomes disabled people through its doors, but has every centre recognised how they could help disabled people with its pool of knowledge and expertise?

What next?

There is a lot that can be achieved if different people work together to inform, educate and create for the disability community. 3D printing enthusiasts have already been exploring ways to make canes for visually impaired people, ramps to help wheelchair users and holders for straws in drinks for people with limited movement to name but a few examples (see my 3d printing blog for more details). I am really hopeful that this project will go from strength to strength and that everyone, including those with disabilities, will benefit from its work. Inevitably this is all still work in progress but it will be interesting to see how it all comes together and how potentially life-changing it could be to certain individuals and groups in society! We’ll have to see where this new-found inventing community leads but for now, it looks increasingly promising.

Get in touch with your local Makerspace if there’s something you think they could make to help you.

 

 

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