Assistive technology can transform lives. And ATiA is the best place to see howIt’s mid-morning in Orlando and early risers are streaming out of their seminars and heading for the exhibition in the Grand Sierra Ballroom. Some have been hard at work since 8.00 am, shunning the lure of sun and pool to listen to their choice of more than 300 presentations taking place over the next two days.
They are joined by new arrivals, wending their way along the covered walkways linking Caribe Royale’s three residential towers to the convention centre. At the entrance to the ballroom smartly dressed ushers check lanyards and welcome attendees to the Assistive Technology Industry Association’s (ATiA) 15th annual convention.
In the ballroom more than 100 vendors are busy showing off their wares. They run the full gamut of assistive technology, from low-cost apps to high-cost hardware. Everywhere you look the booths are beginning to swell with teachers, therapists, speech and language pathologists and parents, collecting flyers, seeking advice or watching demonstrations.
At booth 417, staff from Inclusive Technology and Inclusive TLC are busy demonstrating HelpKidzLearn, a subscription-based online suite of 90+ accessible games and activities that has proven a huge success in the US and elsewhere. Aimed at those at a pre-literacy or early literacy level, they are bright and engrossing and help build basic skills such as concentration, cause and effect, and timing.
Most are fully accessible via touch screen, switches and eye gaze technology. And there are more than 30 standalone apps available for iOS and Android devices. But it is Inclusive’s EyeGaze Foundations which attracts most interest. While eye gaze technology is not new, technical issues and cost have slowed its adoption. Not any longer!
Both at BETT in London and ATiA there was a sense that eye gaze had reached the tipping point when ease of use and falling costs broaden the user base and produce a virtuous circle. Increasingly eye gaze is seen as a viable alternative to other, more established access devices, a trend certain to continue. Inclusive’s EyeGaze Foundations is a case in point.
It’s been lauded for its ease of calibration, competitive price and robustness – features that have won it a coveted Education Resources Award in the UK. For those keen to know more there’s now a comprehensive guide that can be downloaded from the company’s website. Across the aisle, Tobii dynavox is showing its own range of eye gaze solutions.
The company is best known for its PCEye Go, a high-end eye gaze system that offers full mouse functionality and computer access. Just prior to ATiA, however, it announced a new, entry level system, PCEye Explore, ‘for people who want to get started on their eye gaze journey’. Developed over five years, this allows the user to move the mouse cursor and left-click, but not to right click, double click, or drag and drop.
It’s also not compatible with the company’s two main AAC software programs, Compass and Communicator, but will work with its I-Series communication devices. It can be coupled with Tobii’s Sensory Eye FX, a set of 30 software applications designed for the earliest level of eye gaze computer access, and with a range of third-party products, such as Sensory Software’s Look to Learn, EyeGaze, Beamz and Inclusive’s HelpKidzLearn.
Universal access is, of course, the Holy Grail of assistive technology and another device on show at ATiA demonstrates just what’s possible. On the booth of mount specialists REHAadapt North America they are demonstrating a mouth-controlled mouse. Developed by LIFEtool Solutions, the IntegraMouse Plus is a plug-in-and-play device with which a user can activate all the functions of a standard mouse using their mouth. Pressure from the lips moves the cursor across the screen while sips and puffs trigger mouse clicks.
The mouthpiece is detachable for cleaning or can be easily replaced.The IntegraMouse Plus can also be used as a joystick or set to keyboard mode for gaming. The versatility of the device is illustrated by the case of Mario Marusic, a 22-year-old music enthusiast and deejay who had a swimming accident that left him having to use a wheelchair and with little power in his arms and hands. Through the use of the IntegraMouse Plus he has managed to continue playing the music he loves to festival crowds. You can read more of his story here.
Another key feature of this year’s ATiA was the burgeoning field of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), in particular the proliferation of tablet-based apps. While these have transformed the lives of many people with complex communication needs (CCN) they have also generated some concerns.
As a recent report from Rehabilitation Engineering and Research Centre for Communication Enhancement (AAC-RERC) observes, ‘the low cost, widespread availability, and perceived simplicity of mobile devices encourage families and people with CCN to purchase them, without considering carefully how they will help an individual communicate and too often without the benefit of professional AAC expertise and training.’
These concerns do not belie the importance of harnessing new technology to help AAC users but they do highlight the need for more concerted research, as proposed in the AACRERC report. Meanwhile, purchasing decisions need be based on a sound assessment of each end-user ’s abilities and needs. But where to start? Attendees at ATiA suggested two US-based resources: the AAC Institute and AACTechConnect.
The AAC Institute, a not-for-profit, charitable organisation, had a booth at this year ’s ATiA, where attendees could pick up copies of articles, such as Katya Hill and Barry Romich’s AAC Evidence-Based Practice: Four Steps to Optimized Communication, and details of the Institute’s Self Study Program and forthcoming training events. On its website the AAC Institute lists almost 50 sponsors including several of the main AAC vendors, ATiA and AACTechConnect.
The Self Study Program currently offers four courses: Introduction to AAC; Language-Based Approach to AAC Assessment and Intervention; AAC Symbols and Language Representation Methods; and AAC Performance Report: Definition, Generation, and Use. More are in development. No fees are charged and there are no prerequisites to registering. AACTechConnect describes itself as ‘a source for toolkits, online resources, and workshops that simplify the augmentative communication evaluation process’.
Among its fee-for-service resources are its AAC Device Assistant and its AAC App Assistant. The former provides manufacturer information on close to 100 AAC devices while the latter provides information based on its own reviews of over 200+ current communication apps. There is also a wealth of free tools and resources. Elsewhere in the exhibition long-established AAC vendors are embracing new technology while new vendors are bringing fresh approaches to AAC provision.
An example of the former is the Attainment Company, which is now offering Go Talk Now, ‘a full-featured, customisable AAC app for the iPad’. As the company explains, ‘GoTalk NOW has all the essentials of an effective AAC app, like adjustable page layouts, customisable navigation, recorded and text-to-speech capabilities, and an included symbol set.’ Attainment says its focus is on the creation of unique and compelling features that unmistakably separate NOW from other apps.
Go Talk Now complements Attainment’s existing range of Go Talk devices first launched in 1993 and shows how established AAC vendors are meeting the app challenge head on. PRC (Prentke Romich Company), founded in 1966, offers LAMP Words for Life, a full vocabulary AAC language app for iPad, in addition to its Accent range of portable AAC devices. LAMP (Language Acquisition through Motor Planning) is a therapeutic approach based on neurological and motor learning principles that PRC helped develop.
It has been described as ‘the only program that provides specific guidelines and teaching strategies for introducing high-tech AAC with children with autism.’ PRC is headquartered in Ohio, USA but has international entities in the UK (Liberator Ltd), Germany (Prentke Romich Deutschland) and Australia (Liberator Pty Ltd). A recent evaluation of LAMP by Aspect (Autism Spectrum Australia) can be found here and an overview of the app and support materials can be found here.
Another eye-catching new solution is Accorn, ‘a revolutionary new AAC solution…with the ambitious goal of providing free flowing natural-sounding speech for children who have either no or limited ability to communicate verbally.’ Designed for children of all ages and ability it uses bright vibrant graphics, large clear buttons and a range of real recorded voices. Perhaps its most innovative feature, however, is its ‘word tree’ which learns to anticipate what a child wants to say and presents him or her with word choices automatically.
It claims a tenfold increase in the speed and accuracy with which children can express themselves and the more a child uses it the better it becomes. Finally, a mention for two apps that are still in development. One of the busiest booths at ATiA was that of CoughDrop, which is both an AAC app and ‘a repository of open-licensed communication boards that can be personalised, linked up and shared with anyone’.
We are pleased to say that developer Brian Whitmer accepted our invitation to write a piece for Special World explaining his vision for CoughDrop, which you can read elsewhere in this issue. You can also try CoughDrop for yourself by downloading the beta version free.The other AAC app to keep a look out for is being developed by Crick Software, the company behind Clicker. More about this in a future issue.
Reading and writing
Another area of special needs that has really benefitted from the explosion off apps is Literacy, and there were plenty of new products on show at ATiA for those working with students with reading or writing difficulties. There are too many to cover here but we will be looking to feature some of the others in future issues of Special World. So, where to start?
Dutch company AssistiveWare, whose Proloquo2Go app arguably started the AAC app revolution back in 2009, now has a new reading and writing app for the Mac called Wrise. The company is pitching this as a mainstream product, while acknowledging that it may be of use to those with dyslexia. David Niemeijer, CEO and founder of AssistiveWare, says, ‘Wrise is the direct outcome of our March 2014 user survey that clearly highlighted the distinct differences between the needs of our mainstream users and special needs users.’
Wrise does everything you would expect of a word processor at this price point but has some impressive additional features. Users can personalise their reading experience by selecting their preferred voice, adjusting its speech rate and even fine-tuning the pronunciation of words.
You can also tag text to define reading speed, voice, language and volume. When I saw this demonstrated at ATiA it was used to read back dialogue from a storybook using distinct and appropriate voices – a real plus for anyone who might have difficulty following which character is speaking.
On the Claro Software booth they were showing the new ClaroRead 7 for Windows. ClaroRead is best known for its ability to read back text from a wide range of sources including Word documents, Adobe Reader, webpages and emails, but it is also a great aid to writing, making use of word prediction, an on-screen dictionary, thesaurus and spellchecker. ClaroRead 7 extends the choice of read-back voices and now includes Claro’s AudioNote app, which allows you to record an audio file for later use or straight into the slides in a PowerPoint presentation or at a particular point in a Word document.
This is in addition to ClaroIdeas, ClaroCapture and ScreenRuler – apps which are already bundled with the ClaroRead software. A new app worth mentioning is ClaroSpeak Web, ‘a cross-platform text notepad app with highlighting speech, image to text OCR, Dropbox integration, and word prediction.’ ClaroSpeak Web works within the Chrome browser on laptops, tablets, Chromebooks and smart phones.
There is a Mac version of ClaroRead with similar features and Plus and Pro versions with additional features including OCR. ClaroRead users can also sign up to a ClaroRead Cloud service. More on that here. Note taking is, of course, one of the biggest challenges for students with dyslexia, which is why it is good to see further features being added to Sonocent’s Audio Notetaker.
For those unfamiliar with AudioNotetaker it works by chunking speech phrase by phase and allowing the user to col-our code the most important parts as they hear them. The student can then rearrange them, add text, slides and images, and export the edited version to other devices. There is a free Audio Notetaker app for making recordings or you can import recordings from elsewhere. It even works with webinars and video.
Version 4 for the Mac (a Windows version is imminent) adds some interesting new features with the emphasis on making it even easier to use. These include a new Audio Clean-up toolkit that can reduce hisses, keyboard clicks, background noise and other distracting sounds, making recordings clearer. There is also an Audio Replace facility that allows you to swap out your recording for a superior one (should it exist) without losing any of the annotations or changes you’ve already made.
Finally, if you use Dragon NaturallySpeaking (v12 or 13 Premium or Professional) you can use your profile to transcribe audio within this version. Over at the Don Johnston booth another great tool was being shown. Co-Writer Universal is the latest upgrade of the long-established Co-Writer software.
It’s hard to believe it but Co-Writer has been around for 20 years and in the US is now used in 5,000 districts. Co-Writer uses grammar- and vocabulary-smart word prediction to help struggling writers find the right words for what they want to say. Word prediction is refined by access to four million Topic Dictionaries scraped from the web.
It also has a great feature in FlexSpell, which will correct the most challenging spelling errors. Now Co-Writer Universal means students can start a piece of writing on their desktop (Mac or Windows), pick it up on their Chromebook and finish it on an iPad with student settings and Topic Dictionaries being seamlessly shared between devices thanks to the cloud.
Co-Writer Universal also provides the teacher with important usage data to inform their teaching. teaching. This includes the number of words the student has written, how long the student took and the word types (academic, transition or important) used. It will even show which words have been used and not used in each of these categories.
Finally, we should give a honourable mention to TextHelp, whose Read&Write was shortlisted in the ‘SEN – including ICT’ category of this year ’s UK Education Resources Awards. While the trophy was lifted by Inclusive Technology Read&Write was a worthy finalist having built an impressive reputation in the US and UK over the years. Its customisable toolbar provides tools to help students with reading, writing, studying, and research. As with other major vendors it has also embraced the move to the cloud and now offers Read&Write options for Google and for tablets.
The International Association of Accessibility Professionals
There is a wide range of organisations involved in the interrelated fields of special educational needs, disability and assistive technology in the USA as elsewhere. For anyone visiting ATiA for the first time navigating the sea of acronyms can be pretty daunting. ATiA lists almost 40 Alliance Partners, some of which, like the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA), represent the interest of groups catering for specific disabilities.
Others, like the State Leaders of Assistive Technology in Education (SLATE), describe themselves as communities of practice. What nearly all of them have in common is that they are local to the USA. An exception is the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP), a relatively new association for ‘individuals and organisations that are focused on accessibility or are in the process of building their accessibility strategies’.
IAAP’s CEO Christine Murphy Peck tells me that although the IAAP was formally launched at CSUN in San Diego in March 2014 the conversation about it started four or five years earlier with Rob Sinclair (Microsoft’s Chief Accessibility Officer), Daniel Hubbell (ATiA Board President and Microsoft Accessibility Technical Evangelist), David Dikter (ATiA CEO) and Kathy Martinez (Head of the US Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, known as ODEP).
The group commissioned a study with the Department of Labor to determine whether IT professionals thought an association was something that was needed and the answer was a resounding ‘Yes’. Not only were respondents interested in more education and training but they clearly felt the need to come together. ‘There was no one group that encompassed what they did; they were looking for a home, they were looking to find each other, they were looking to have a conversation,’ Peck says.
By March 2014 the preparatory work was done, seed money was in place and the organising team had assembled an impressive list of Founding Members. Significantly, it not only included major IT companies but also household names from other sectors such as banking and transportation.
At the time of ATiA Conference IAAP had recruited approximately 1,750 members in 51 countries. These include individual and organisational members. Organisations can choose between different levels of membership, which allows them to sign up different numbers of members. Those working in the education sector currently make up the second largest membership category.
Among IAAP’s priorities are education, training and certification. ‘Acknowledging the profession, defining the profession, helping people find a pathway, are all part of our work,’ Peck says. Currently IAAP offers webinars and training materials and is consulting on a conceptual roadmap for IAAP accessibility certification. While the certification proposal envisages three levels – Associate, Professional and Expert – the focus for 2015 is on developing the first two.
The planned first step is create a general, entry-level certification that covers basic accessibility knowledge across all domains. The timetable, says Peck, is ‘aggressive’ but IAAP plans to offer the first layer of certification from January 2016. Membership of IAAP is currently weighted towards the US but the association is keen to grow its international presence.
The Americans with Disabilities Act’s 25th Anniversary
One of the visitors to ATiA in Orlando had travelled further than most. The ADA Legacy Bus Tour is a project to mark the 25th anniversary of the signing into law on 26 July 1990 of the Americans with Disabilities Act. By the time its liveried bus pulled into the parking lot of the Caribe Royale Convention Centre it had travelled 11,000 miles through 18 states stopping at city halls, disability organisations, public schools, universities, disability conferences and Abilities Expos on route.
The ADA underpins the progress that Americans with disabilities have made in gaining access to education and employment. At the time of its passage there were an estimated 43 million Americans with some form of disability. As former Congressman Tony Coelho, one of the key figures in the passage of the ADA, explains in ADA25’s official publication: ‘Over the last 25 years, there has been a dramatic reduction in physical barriers, although the environment is not yet barrier-free.
Accommodations have benefitted society beyond what could have been envisioned and accessibility is now part of the architectural lexicon.’ Assistive technology, and those who have pioneered it, have played an important part in this journey. The ADA Legacy Bus Tour is an initiative of the ADA Legacy Project, which has as its goals:
- preserving the history of the disability rights movement,
- celebrating its milestones – including the 25th anniversary of the ADA;
- and educating the public and future generations of advocates.
The tour will culminate in a celebration, march and rally in Washington DC. Special World would like to join with those wishing the ADA a happy anniversary.