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Celebrating disability innovations in technology

Accessible software, devices, and systems are routinely improving the lives of millions of disabled people.

When designed and built correctly, technology can be a great enabler for everyone, including disabled people. Whether it's making routine or daily tasks easier to perform, introducing workplace efficiencies or transforming how we connect with the world, technology drives change and transforms just about every part of our everyday lives. However, even though new technology products and services continue to expand at a seemingly exponential rate, accessibility is not always built in – and this is deeply problematic.

Accommodating the needs of tech users who have a disability

There is a growing realisation in the tech community that we shouldn’t be overlooking the needs of around 1 in 5 of the UK population who have a disability. As the awareness of accessibility concerns continues to permeate into the mainstream, it is becoming more and more difficult to bring inaccessible products to the market without eliciting serious criticism. Industry leaders like Apple, who recently released a short film on autism that illustrates that accessibility features matter, while Microsoft has made accessibility and usability central to product innovation and development. In blazing the trail in such a public way, it is likely that other companies will follow suit soon enough.

But awareness and implementation are not as widespread as they could be. Not all technology is designed to be inclusive or accessible, so it remains highly important to celebrate and showcase those organisations and individuals who go above and beyond to design technology that have a positive impact.

Recognising the life-changers

It is this exact ethos that prompted national charity AbilityNet, which exists to change the lives of disabled people by helping them to use digital technology at work, at home, or in education, to set up the Tech4Good Awards six years ago. In doing so, AbilityNet with the help of BT, created the only awards that exist to highlight the wealth of charities, businesses and volunteers across the UK that harness the power of technology to benefit the community.

Access to the digital world can be life-changing and the three most recent winners from the Accessibility Award category, Barclays Bank, SpecialEffect, and Open Bionics perfectly illustrates the sheer variety of ways in which technology can be used to benefit the lives of disabled people:

How does technology make banking more accessible for disabled people and what was the impact?

The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) ran a ‘Making Money Talk’ campaign, which highlighted the fact that less than 70 of the 64,000 ATMs in the UK had audio capability. This meant that only 11 per cent of blind and partially sighted people used cash machines unaided because the machines were simply not accessible.

Barclays stepped up to the plate to become the first UK bank to act, allowing customers to respond to audio instruction using a pair of headphones plugged into a connection in the cash machine.

Barclays Bank updated over 3,500 cash machines across the UK and issued High Visibility Cards to help customers use their card in ATMs and Chip & PIN devices. Not only did their action mean that thousands of blind and partially sighted Barclays customers gained independent and flexibility in the way they get their cash, but Barclays work kick-started a similar response from other major banks in the UK. Today both Barclays and Nationwide now have over 98 per cent of their ATMs talking, with HSBC and RBS planning to introduce accessible ATMs in 2017.

What benefits do disabled people gain from using computers in their leisure time?

SpecialEffect is a specialist organisation that unites numerous digital technologies to enhance the quality of life of people with all kinds of needs, including stroke and road traffic accident patients, individuals with life-limiting conditions and injured soldiers returning from overseas.

Their mission is to enable anyone, whatever their physical disability, to enjoy video games and leisure technology. Using a wide range of modified and off-the-shelf technology, including custom games, joypads, eye-control systems, mouth/chin controllers and voice control software, they do whatever it takes for people to play to their very best. Founded in 2007, SpecialEffect quickly found that there was a huge demand for help and advice.

It’s not all for the sake of fun, though. By giving people the means to participate in video games, they’re providing a doorway to social inclusion and friendship. More than that, SpecialEffect’s highly personalised combinations of technology and games enable therapy, rehabilitation, self-esteem, escapism from disability, distraction from pain, and even providing respite time for carers.

How is 3D technology making a difference to disabled people?

With an estimated 2 million hand amputees in the world, Open Bionics is revolutionising healthcare by using 3D scanning and 3D printing to dramatically cut the cost of fitting hand amputees with robotic prosthetics. A start-up of just four people aged 23-24, wanting to create and see social change drives Open Bionics to change the exclusivity of the world of robotic prosthetic hands.

Bionic limbs can cost anything from £20,000 to £80,000, and can take up to three months to make. These expenses become crippling for families of young amputees because children need to be refitted once or twice a year as they continue to grow. The problem of current robotic prosthetics is their financial barriers and the only alternative is a cosmetic hand that is functionless and heavy.

Open Bionics is able to use 3D scanning, modelling and printing to make custom-fit bionic hands for £1,000, which is about 30 times cheaper than most other comparable products on the market and can be created in just five days.

Not only does this use of technology change people’s lives on a daily basis, it also helps them get back into work, giving them greater independence and freedom. By creating low-cost advanced robotic hands for amputees everywhere, Open Bionics encourages young amputees to feel good about their differences.

Mark Walker at AbilityNet