Using technology to support people with a learning disability has traditionally involved expensive pieces of specialist equipment. But advances in consumer technology are changing that
From Kindles and iPads to smartphones and game consoles, technology is increasingly part of our daily existence. But it’s not all about games like Angry Birds – people with a learning disability are using gadgets as part of their support plans.
Following the recent death of Apple founder Steve Jobs, the benefits of technology for disabled people have been widely discussed. Quoted in a recent ‘LA Times’ article, singer Stevie Wonder spoke about Apple’s impact on the disabled community: “He has affected not just my world, but the world of millions of people who, without that technology, would not be able to discover the world.”
Based at the University of East London, The Rix Centre is a charitable organisation dedicated to research and development of new media technologies for use by people with a learning disability. Since it was established in 2004, The Rix Centre has explored different methods of using technology to help people with a learning disability to communicate, learn and socialise. These include multimedia advocacy, which uses a combination of digital photography, video and audio to let users express their choices.
It has also looked at the use of augmented and alternative communication (AAC) devices – a term used to describe any communication method that supplements or replaces speech. Popular examples of AAC apps include Proloquo2Go, Grace, Tobii Sono Flex and MyChoicePad, which enable users to build up a sentence by selecting images, symbols and words.
Nick Whelden, a consultant for The Rix Centre, says that for many years, the cost of technology has reduced its take-up among the learning disability community. However, that is now changing, thanks to the creative use of gadgets that were designed for the mainstream market. “Smartphones and iPads are now powerful enough to do many of the things that AAC devices can do,” he explains.
AAC manufacturers, however, have criticised the use of specialist software on gadgets that haven’t been designed specifically for people with a learning disability. “They’re not as fully developed as AAC devices,” explains Nick. “But, AAC devices can cost £3,000 to £5,000, because they’re pretty much handmade.” AAC manufacturers may struggle in a market where an iPad and app can be bought for a tenth of the price of the equipment they sell.
Recent months have seen the release of a number of smartphone apps, designed specifically for use by people with a learning disability. The iMEmine app, from learning disability charity The Helping Hands Group, includes a ‘Find Me’ feature, which emails the individual’s location to a chosen contact at the touch of a single button.
And Mencap’s Do Some Good app lets users tag places or services in their community and rate them in terms of accessibility.
One company exploring the use of apps is RSLSteeper, which provides a range of assistive technologies to the disability market. Its recently-launched EvoAssist app turns an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch into a remote control for, for example, answering the door, closing the curtains or putting the kettle on.
Dave Howson, director of RSLSteeper’s assistive technology division, says that the decision to develop software for a mainstream product was a leap of faith for the company: “The main driver was that it’s using technology that everybody else has – so it won’t label anyone as different.”
Nick agrees that this is a benefit of using mainstream products: “Often, what makes a device more functional is whether someone feels comfortable getting it out and using it in a cafe. And if it’s an iPad or an iPhone, it’s just what everyone else is sitting in the cafe using.”
Dave also says that because devices like smartphones are getting much more powerful, it gives them the flexibility to develop new or add-on software for the same system. From a marketing point of view, Dave says that the mainstream devices are seen as desirable, which can help with sales of their software. “In the past, we’ve developed devices that work very well functionally, but people want something that works on their smartphone or computer. They don’t want an unusual piece of kit.”
However, Dave does concede that the launch of EvoAssist hasn’t yet made a significant dent in their sales of traditional dedicated environmental controllers. “A dedicated controller is arguably more appropriate for some people,” he says. “If someone is particularly technophobic, for example, if you give them an iPhone, it’s going to be too confusing for them.”