The answer to the question of using mainstream and specialist technology is not ‘mainstream is good’ and ‘specialist is bad’ or vice versa.
At Scope we have worked at adapting ‘off the shelf’ technology, by identifying as much equipment as possible from the mainstream market that can be repurposed or adapted for the use of disabled people.
This has had a number of benefits, primarily to lower the overall system cost.
When you are looking to meet the requirements of people with very complex needs that include dexterity impairments, physical disabilities and learning difficulties and indeed combinations thereof there are too many variations to use inclusive design to produce viable mainstream products that can meet all needs.
We are not taking anything away from the great work done by specialist developers and suppliers (who I would actually like to personally congratulate!).
They fill an absolutely vital void between the accessibility that is baked into mainstream kit and the users whose needs simply cannot be met by such built in accessibility options.
Making use of mainstream kit
However, it remains the case that we can often make use of mainstream kit and customised software to create a solution which meets the requirements and interests of the user.
For example, taking an iPad or Microsoft Surface Pro tablet as the basis of a communication system or environmental control systems (ECS) controller, adding some software and an input device appropriate for the user (e.g touchscreens, switches, mouse alternatives, eye-gaze control) and finish by customising the software interface for and around the user.
Although this is ‘off-the-shelf’ technology, these aren’t ‘off-the-shelf’ solutions, we do this in a highly customised way using person centred planning.
When we work like this we are combining the skill sets of the user, occupational therapists, assistive technologists, speech and language therapists, specialist teachers and others in order to create a system that genuinely meets an individual’s needs.
We want to be able to scale this approach to allow more disabled people independence. Scope is developing this ‘assistive technology’ service within our own organisation through a series of pilots that if successful could be scaled more widely.
We have also worked with Jisc (a charity that champions the use of digital technologies in UK education and research) to develop the ‘DART’ projects in partnership with two other Colleges in order to spread the practice we have developed.
A missing element
One element that we are sometimes missing when we are looking at integrating mainstream services and software with the accessible user interfaces mentioned above are the ‘hooks’ or ‘digital affordances’ that can be built into software and services.
These allow someone, like one of our assistive technologists, to come along afterwards and build something that really meets a user’s needs, rather than attempting to make do with a system that kind of does some of the time.
The key point for me from the Enabling Technology report was that we need to address the extensibility of systems using such ‘hooks’ or ‘digital affordances’.
Interestingly, this is very similar to the approach taken by the BBC R&D team when they developed the UC (Universal Control) system in order to provide incredible levels of accessibility to next generation TV platforms, which is a story for another blog.
Summary of report themes
As a quick summary the key themes of the report in relation to hardware or devices were:
- Adapt the mainstream – Use adapted mainstream technology as much as possible to create enabling devices rather than developing dedicated devices from scratch.
- Use open, flexible technology – Base enabling technology on adaptable or open source technology to maximise flexibility, forward compatibility and security of supply.
- Tailor it – Create enabling technology that can be simply and easily tailored to the individual who will be using it, minimising the gap between the person and the device.
This should also be about empowering users to adapt systems themselves, or take advantage of the open source ‘maker’ community to leverage the low cost equipment and highly customisable software that is now available. It remains the case, however, that very few disabled people have access to people with the skills or interest to carry that out, but it is certainly a growing group.
For me the Enabling Technology report is a great piece of research that should give both product commissioners and designers (and also software engineers) some good points to consider when building new products or services. Here are a few recommendations that I think are key:
- Allow the experience to be customised.
Digital technology allows a single service to present different faces to different users, so build services that can do this by being themselves adaptable, and open to adaptation by third parties.
- Use timed task completion to measure accessibility.
As well as compliance with abstract accessibility requirements, use the time it takes for different disabled people to accomplish tasks is a good measure of the accessibility of a service.
- Consider the experience before and after web.
Think about the whole chain of delivery of a service and the best way to make every link accessible. This may mean substituting steps that are currently physical with digital ones, or offering alternative routes to steps that are already digital.
- Include switch users
Use native interface elements, simplify layout and navigation and support keyboard shortcuts. Consider building a scan-and-select input option for digital services.
There is more information on the ‘Enabling Technology’ report on the Scope blog.