A lasting legacy for all learners through the uptake of accessible technologies
The 2012 Paralympics gave us two weeks of hardcore sporting endeavour and triumph. Watched by millions of people around the world, the games helped to demystify disability and increase understanding, but have they created a legacy for accessible technologies? We talked to Sal Cooke, director of Jisc TechDis, to find out what she thinks.
In the summer of 2012 something happened with a bang – not just the starting pistols of the various sporting activities on the track, in the velodrome, in the pool, off the diving board, on the mat, on horseback, in the canoes or lifting weights. In Sal Cooke’s opinion, one of the most important elements of the summer was that 37 million viewers tuned into Channel 4’s coverage of the Paralympics.
But will this feel-good factor and interest in disability continue to shine through and keep the spirit of inclusion at the forefront of our minds? Sal hopes that even though the sun has set on the 2012 games, we will see lasting impacts for the diverse communities that TechDis addresses from research, to supporting teaching and learning and importantly to disabled users themselves.
When Professor Stephen Hawking spoke at the Paralympics opening ceremony and urged everyone in the world to “Look up at the stars and not down at your feet…try to make sense of what you see…be curious” Sal was thrilled. Not only were his words inspirational but Hawking’s synthetic voice gave Sal the link she needed to introduce the TechDis voices.
TechDis Jess and TechDis Jack are two high quality, natural-sounding synthetic voices for use with text-to-speech tools. The voices, one male and one female with different English accents, have been developed for people to use with a range of electronic devices, including laptops so they can listen to text rather than read it. This could be someone with a print impairment or someone for whom English is not their first language.
TechDis Jess and Jack have only been available since Summer 2012 but early feedback from users has been very positive. Scotland has had a similar service for a number of years and it has resulted in cost savings for universities and colleges, where TechDis and the Scottish Regional Support Centre have championed the use of Text-to-Speech. TechDis is also working with the RNIB to ensure that the newly-funded Welsh voices are taken up by the learning communities in Wales.
“We are hoping that Jess and Jack will help bring text-to-speech out of the shadows and into the light of mainstream education provision. There are so many benefits for so many different types of people.”
It would appear that the appetite for the use of such tools is becoming more understood by those in mainstream roles, which has been an aspiration of TechDis. With the advent of such things as iPhones and iPads many people now use voice commands and text to speech software in their everyday lives without thinking of the origins of such tools.
The success of the UK's Paralympic athletes has created a higher level of awareness of the role technology can play in helping people realise their dreams and achieve their desires. This has encouraged many businesses to invest not only in disabled sport, but has also fed down into investment for education and technology. An example of this is the organisation which has taken control of the Olympic Park, vowing to invest £2m in a range of Paralympic legacy projects including a festival of disabled sport.
Within education this extra investment is excellent news as a wider variety of tools become available to ensure that people are better equipped for independent learning. Assistive technologies refers to any device or system that allows an individual to perform a task they would otherwise be unable to do, or increases the ease and safety with which the task can be performed.
Using technology appropriately can enhance the learning experience for all users, but is particularly significant for users with disabilities. These technologies help to level the playing field and close any gaps between differently-abled students. TechDis has always focused on the use of enabling technologies for both able-bodied and disabled users and has a powerful role in advocating the use of assistive technology to increase both independence and productivity.
TechDis has been working with the Department for Business Innovation & Skills (BIS) and the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) to improve take up and understanding of assistive and mainstream technologies for the benefit of disabled and disadvantaged learners. As part of this work, TechDis promoted and managed two Small Business Research Initiatives (SBRIs).
Sal explains, “SBRI brings innovative solutions to specific public sector needs, by bringing commercial companies and the research communities together in product development based on real proven need. Seven companies received funding and – while delivery to market is still a little way off – the prototypes, two of which are outlined below, have raised a great deal of interest.”
MyDocStore/Azzapt – This is a cloud-based file which allows easy conversion from one standard document format to another. It means that wherever a user logs on to a particular device the file will always appear in the specified format for them, whichever device they are using.
Portable Sign Language Translator
Portable Sign Language Translator – Like many computer game systems, such as the Xbox or the Wii, this software can recognise movement and in this instance has been programmed to recognise sign language. It can also be programmed to recognise personal signs, which means it is great for people with limited mobility or who may have had a stroke, as well as deaf users. The fantastic thing about it is that it can be used on mobile phones, portable devices, online and in the long term this could even be used in banks through CCTV. It will allow deaf people to communicate more freely and easily with non-signers and there are endless possibilities for its application.
Sal comments: “It was an exciting summer and it is right to celebrate the achievements of our athletes as well as those of our researchers, developers, educators and supporters. We will need to continue to push the boundaries with the research community, explore new technologies and practice, and help those delivering learning understand how to get the best out of new developments.
“TechDis aim to bring its considerable knowledge and expertise to the fore and help ensure the procurement, strategic deployment, and support of assistive technologies is now seen in the same light as those technologies developed for the Paralympics. They should be part of the norm and something for everyone to utilise. As those 37 million viewers realised disabled athletes are just a part of the sporting scene and we should ensure disabled learners and staff are treated in a similar way.
“Most importantly what we need to understand and remember is that inclusive practice is good practice and that technologies that facilitate communication and understanding benefit everyone.”
This article originally featured in issue 35 of Jisc Inform (UK web archive).