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Access all areas: Life-changing technology

Rory Cellan-Jones | 07:00 UK time, Thursday, 2 December 2010

How much has technology changed your life in the last couple of decades, since we became an always-on connected society? For many of us, the arrival of mobile communications and the world wide web have provided a huge step forward in the way we communicate - but for one group, the disabled, these technologies really have proved life-changing.

I've been making a short television report for the BBC's Access all Areas series looking at the impact technology has made on the lives of disabled people. We visited the Oxford Centre for Enablement where they are testing various technologies that could help people with very limited mobility to interact with computers.

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We saw Dr Philip Anslow using one of those technologies, Eye-Gaze, to help him continue to work as a radiologist despite being almost completely immobilised by Motor Neurone Disease.

And we spent an inspiring morning at the Frank Wise Special School in Banbury, watching teachers use everything from a Wii games console to an iPad to give severely disabled children improved access to learning and better ways of communicating.

The head teacher Sean O'Sullivan explained to me that the disabled had been early adopters of technologies which were now becoming commonplace in homes - touchscreen computers, for instance, had been used 25 years ago in his school.

But my best source of information on this subject has been Adrian Higginbotham, who accompanied me for much of our filming. We met him at Banbury station - he'd tweeted and texted me from the train to report progress - and we strode up and down the platform with his guide dog Mac, while he showed me how a blind man uses mobile technology to make life easier.

Adrian is one of nature's geeks at home and at work, where he advises schools on the use of technology. In his pocket, a Nokia smartphone muttered continually, alerting him to incoming e-mails, texts and tweets which he could then have read out.

Twenty years ago, Adrian tells me, technology was something that was "done" to disabled people - but now the smartphone revolution is just one thing that's putting them in charge:

"We've gone from an age of big machines and people having to sit in front of them, and, particularly for disabled people, it being a service that was provided and you had to be grateful for, to now, when people depend on technology for their independence."

A similar point was made by another blind man, the BBC's political correspondent Gary O'Donoghue. He says it's not the big flashy technology that's making the difference but simple things like "talking" buses and improved access to communications tools:

"Simple access to PC technology has opened up a whole world of jobs to blind people in particular that wasn't possible before. Clerical work for example, and research. I remember all too well having to beg and borrow peoples' eyes when I started as a reporter, for them to read cuttings to me from the library, whereas now I can get the stuff electronically and read it independently."

And he too says advances in mobile phones have made life a lot easier: "I used to carry phone numbers around in my head. But over the past five years, simple software solutions have made mainstream mobiles accessible not just to make calls, but also to use contacts, calendars, email and internet."

So plenty of progress, but there is more to be done. Adrian Higginbotham points out that some technologies originally developed for disabled people, like talking books, sometimes become less accessible when they are adapted for the mainstream. Amazon was forced to adapt its Kindle e-book when American universities complained that it was not accessible to people with visual impairments.

And there is currently a vigorous campaign to try to ensure web developers understand that websites have to be just as accessible to everyone as public buildings.

But my brief acquaintance with this fascinating subject has taught me one thing. Clever manufacturers should keep a close eye on what disabled people are doing with gadgets because they are the pathfinders, showing the way to better, more useable technology.

Update 14:20: Some people have pointed out a huge irony about the video which is embedded in this post - it lacks subtitles so it is not accessible to people with impaired hearing.

We are trying to get that fixed for this particular video, but my colleagues who work to put clips on the news website admit that this is a serious issue. Getting subtitling burned into every video that plays on this site would be a complex operation - but I know they are scratching their heads about ways of doing it. I will come back with any news on how this is progressing.


  • Comment number 1.

    Agree, accessibility is key. Also applies to the third of the country who can't get a reliable connection, due to the limitations of the copper phone network. Also worth pointing out on this well read blog that infinity won't provide a futureproof connection for either the disabled or the abled in the final third. Anyone further than 300 metres from one of the copper cabinets won't get a connection fit for purpose, and last week BT announced they will not be upgrading the cabinets. So another generation misses out on next generation access and the regulator ofcom covers it up, and ASA continues to let the telcos advertise 'fibre broadband' delivered by copper. They are literally disabling the country...

  • Comment number 2.

    As a Rehabilitation Worker who supports visually impairs people regain and retain their independence, I feel I must comment on Gary O'Donoghue's piece on the lunchtime news. Reference to 'this' during his commentary disenabled those who share his own disability. I would have hoped that a reference to a telephone or memory might have been verbalised rather than left hanging. I appreciate it is difficult to describe every picture in words, but an article about accessibility should have been that, accessible.

  • Comment number 3.

    Putting subtitles into the video if you guys manage to crack it, will be a huge milestone

  • Comment number 4.

    Accessibility is one of those inevitables that is sure to affect you sooner or later, so it is better to start building for it sooner, rather than wait to discover what false-assumptions and mistakes, you have welded into your life, once it does.

    As a user, even if it does not affect you now, it will do as you simply grow older: to assume that it won't, is to assume that you won't grow old enough for this to happen to you (by all means, live like that if it gives you comfort, but be aware that you might not have the good fortune to die so young).

    As an owner of an on-line resource, you must assume that the material you maintain will one day become important and interesting enough for it to become, either legislatively, or economically, imperative to build accessibility into it: to think otherwise, is to volunteer for mediocrity.

    The irony is that, originally, computing technologies were much more universally accessible than they have since become: the field was not only more level, but, by being level, everyone designing for it, built for the same field. Users who were blind, for instance, had no particular disadvantage, because users who were not blind had no particular advantage. Computers were universally rather clunky, and everyone was in much the same boat.

    For instance, in the days before HTML email and word processors, the only kind of text that existed, was plain-text, and screen readers had no problems with it. The software started reading the text out at the top of the screen, and stopped when it reached the bottom. Everyone designed their content around the idea of using the TAB and ENTER keys, or numbered list menus, to navigate with, because those were the only kinds of navigation that there was.

    It was the arrival of "point and click", and "visual gorgeousness" that was the start of the creeping inequality. This whole approach militates against those for whom "point and click" is not the instinctive means of interacting with things.

    I well recall the distress of a colleague of mine, who was blind, as he suddenly found himself powerless to read his own email, any more, because his contacts had all been issued with Windows PCs, with copies of Outlook on them, to replace their old DEC terminals. By default, Outlook emails have always been the blandest-looking computer documents in existence - unless you can't actually see them! Their actual text, is a mess of HTML mark-up, nested tags, and garbage, which added nothing to the visual quality of the message, but made the actual message unreadable to those early screen readers.

    The irony was, that in most regards, the sighted users had not had their lives enriched by this change: the text was now a boring blue, on boring white, instead of boring orange on boring black. There was no reason why Outlook had to send email in HTML format, by default - nor any good reason why it could not simply have opted to render plain text in a more visually-compelling manner, so that people would have continued to send the majority of their mail as plain text. By opting for HTML, it had solved nothing for those who were unaffected by it, while creating a whole new problem for those who were.

    It is so easy to create iniquities like this, through simple oversight, when - as the article describes - this technology has such a potential to dispel inequalities.

  • Comment number 5.

    The flip side of all this is that people here on Buses in London have to listen to the buses destination tanoyed 30 times every trip or whenever the doors open! Yes it might be helpful to some but hugely irritating to others.

  • Comment number 6.

    Re sub titles, ar'nt there voice activated systems?

  • Comment number 7.

    You say that is is very difficult to put subtitles in. I don't know how that can be true when the embedded videos use similar technology to that used in BBC iPlayer and yet iPlayer is perfectly capable of displaying subtitles...

  • Comment number 8.

    Fascinating topic; however, for us Deaf people who wanted to view the video, we became gobsmacked. In spite of the video's topic, there are no subtitles available, even as soon as the video is submitted into online pages.
    It's 2010, technology seems not to have evolved sufficiently to facilitate easier means of inserting text captions in online videos. It is not technology that is the problem, it is the mindset of people developing visual media who still assume all people could rely on sound for information via this medium.
    An OFCOM Mori survey during the 2000s revealed that at least four times hearing people as Deaf / Hearing Impaired viewers do use subtitles on TV....there are many reasons why this is so.
    We had asked for more integrated technology so that users have the choice of open/closed captions (that is a key principle of accessible social inclusion) for two decades now.
    If the minus-subtitles online situation continues well into the 2010s...well....arghh!!
    Please do something, as it really, really does affect viewer/participant confidence, & quality of life, amongst us Deaf people who use the Internet to see similar videos.
    Penny Beschizza

  • Comment number 9.

    It is really good to see enthusiasm shown about technologies to support those with extra needs. You have presented this more like Top Gear than disable label. Keep going and find technologies to support the blind so that they can navigate streets in a city and find the places they are looking for without wasting a journey. I sometimes have a chat with a blind person on my journey to work. He is able to get out and about with a dog for the blind and he has a good job. Peter White is also vision impaired and look how successful he is. The disabled have so much to offer if provided with the right resources and opportunities.

  • Comment number 10.

    As Indio says every bus has a display and a voice constantly saying where the bus is and where it's destination is, it is amazing how many people are oblivious to this!!

  • Comment number 11.

    There is one pleasing piece of action that will help things to move in respect of Subtitles and Online Content the US Government passed the 21St Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act and it is now law. Basically it requires those producers of online content to start making closed captions for all video content that is shown online, it wont be instant but it will now come and the incentives to do this will make content providers find quicker and easier ways to provide close captions otherwise they will breach the law and the FCC will be after them and given how big and important the US market is they will do it

  • Comment number 12.

    Re above I forgot to mention that its not just about the hearing impaired but all those who have disabilities i.e. blind and partially sighted

  • Comment number 13.

    If you can't add subtitles to your videos, then how about providing optional separate transcripts with timing info? Not a perfect solution, but better than nothing!

  • Comment number 14.

    I find this article very usefull and informative. As a phyically disabled person (hemiplegic) I have many issues with various bodies with regard to accessibility. Many operators are not up to speed with their customers needs. I am a member of a club (compulsory) for the house that I live in. We pay an annual levy for upkeep and staff wages. In my case £200 per annum and I cannot use the faacilities because I cannot get to the toilet in time. My local council do not grit the roads and pavements so, I am confined to the house. Keep up with the good work.

  • Comment number 15.

    I think the talking buses are great! It's not just for blind people, if you are taking a bus route you are not familiar with and you've been told which stop to get off at, it's hugely helpful to have it announced. I get really cranky when the drivers turn it off, which they do sometimes, I think that shouldn't be allowed!

  • Comment number 16.

    Rory - you point out that adding subtitles to every BBC News video would be a complex issue, but it needn't be; services like Mozilla's Universal Subtitles ( ) could allow the video's audience to subtitle the video themselves, and have already done most of the technological legwork for you. Have your colleagues had considered using them (or a similar service)?

  • Comment number 17.

    The "Talking Buses" example illustrates how technology is compromised by commercial realities. In London (and in selected cases elsewhere), an individual bus will spend weeks, months, possibly its entire life, on the same bus route. In most other areas - certainly in major conurbations, an individual vehicle will be on different routes every day - sometimes even serving different routes on the same day. That's on top of the cost of installing the system in the first place.

    More fundamentally, the elderly and disabled need to be able to board the bus in the first place. It seems ludicrous that millions of pounds have been spent on developing easy access buses (all ultimately paid for by the adult passengers), and raised/extended kerbs, yet local authorities still refuse to tackle the epidemic of illegal parking on bus stops. Its significant that where I used to live, they had had low-floor buses on the majority of bus services for over five years, but I had never seen a wheelchair user on these otherwise busy routes. Yet as soon as I moved to the other end of the town, and the route into a neighbouring town had "build out" bus stops, I saw wheelchair users quite regularly. Ironically, they've lost confidence again now, because most bus journeys fill up with parents with buggies, and each bus can only accept two buggy/wheelchairs.

  • Comment number 18.

    As someone with motor neurone disease the use of eye control software is invaluable but there are alternatives to to the expensive eye gaze. These include Camera Mouse (free) or SmartNav. However, the real benefit comes with the use of the right virtual keyboard. I find Dasher works for for me.


  • Comment number 19.

    While I think it's great that a little extra thought put into design can make a world of difference to the disabled, I do sometimes wonder if we're not going a bit overboard: in over 25 years of living in London, I've only ever seen one wheelchair user on a bus, and I've never seen a blind person buy their own Tube ticket using those braille buttons. Or maybe I just don't go out enough?

  • Comment number 20.

    As already mentioned by njlindse there are a number of other technologies that are avaliable before considering eye gaze and at the OCE we assess for these too. As you can imagine with such a short article it was only the very high tech solutions that were shown and not the "everday" ones which tend to use more often. Click and type is another useful onscreen keyboard which is freeware and is fully customisable to the user and has macro keys.

  • Comment number 21.

    As Hethbum has pointed out it was unlikely that a short radio or video piece could feature all options and was likely to highlight the high tech end. However, I might have expected that more information may have been provided in the blog, particularly as I came to it looking for more information having heard the radio piece. The reason for making these points is that I have yet to meet a healthcare professional who had heard of these free technologies, even the assistive technologists. Thus publicising these solutions is a public service that I would hope BBC felt fitted into its remit.

  • Comment number 22.

    Graphis - its probably not that you don't "get out enough", it could be that you only travel (by bus) in a very restricted area. As I mentioned (17), where I used to live on an estate plagued by bus stop blocking, I never saw a wheelchair user, even in the 5+ years that most services were run with low-floor "easy access" buses. However, when I moved a couple of miles nearer Manchester, I noticed regular wheelchair use - even to the extent that one wheelchair user was refused one day, simply because the wheelchair space was already legitimately occupied by another wheelchair user. I should add that on this occasion, the inconvenienced passenger should have had to wait no more than five minutes for another bus on the same line of route.

  • Comment number 23.

    Talking buses..also handy if you fancy a mini snooze.

  • Comment number 24.

    The irony i saw was an article from Rory which mentions iPads, a dog called Mac and yet Adrian has a Nokia smartphone, and not an iPhone...

    Only joking - not trying to throw open another BBC / Apple debate!

  • Comment number 25.

    Whats most annoying is that many of the 'hi tec' companies that provide this technology refuse point blank to use it themselves... most of the employees are forced to tramp into the office day after day to do work that they could do just as well connected to the internet by the very devices they actually make... I know I'm one of the poor sods who wastes a good fraction of his life sitting in the resulting, and unnecessary, traffic jams. Wish the government would legislate on this, companies won't change without being forced to. This is destroying lives as well as the planet, and all because the 'middle management' still have the mentality of Victorian mill owners... but at least the Victorians had the excuse that the big machinery needed speccial buildings...

  • Comment number 26.

    @19. At 09:57am on 04 Dec 2010, Graphis wrote:
    You are right, the disabled gave cars, special parking and other aids anf rarely, if ever, need to use public transport, and a miniscule number do use it. For the very very rare occasions someone does normal polite help is all that is really required. Personally I think we got rid of the ivconic British routemaster and replaced them with boring German euro-incendiary-bendy-dont-fit-the-streets-need-new-bus-stop Mercedes things for a completly fatuous arguement in political correctness

  • Comment number 27.

    All of this is great reading and very interesting. However, it fails to take into account one important barrier to disabled people - postcode. London may have fancy buses that speak to people - on our route in the more urbanised section of a rural county, we don't even have buses that have flat floor access for wheelchairs or pushchairs. Till recently we had one bus running through the area four times a day which had such access, but since it's a council funded route, the buses are the bottom of the quality level. There's at least one blind lady who lives near me who struggles regularly getting up the steps with her guide dog.

    That said, even on the top of the line buses, this area has none that speak. It isn't just those with visual impairments who would benefit from such a facility, though. There's nothing wrong with my eyes or ears, thankfully, but I have autism which renders me severely directionally challenged and means I can't often navigate my way anywhere. I'm wary of buses for this reason - but if we had vehicles that told me where I was, I would be far happier using them.

    If only such technology was available in all areas of the UK, instead of being focused only in specific regions.

    Sadly rural areas are often some way behind on things of this nature, because for some reason the people making the decisions think we don't need to do anything or get anywhere...

  • Comment number 28.

    "Getting subtitling burned into every video that plays on this site would be a complex operation - but I know they are scratching their heads about ways of doing it."

    Two things

    1. There is a long history of this problem being solved, but not understood - Quicktime, Apple's video technology on computers, had this capability in 1991, but hardly anyone knew or understood its value. As others have pointed out it helps almost everyone to have the option of subtitles. YouTube now give the amateur the power to add subtitles - surely not a challenge (except in cost) for the BBC?

    2. 'burned in' is so old-fashioned-tv speak - we live in a multi-channel, choice-oriented media world now - get with the programme!

    Seriously, this is an underexploited power of modern multimedia, almost twenty years old, but not exploited - who is really 'unseeing' here?


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