Murray Field using a VR headset at Digifest 2019
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Murray Field using a VR headset at Digifest 2019

‘For young disabled learners like me, technology is the future’

Technological innovation has improved the quality of life for many people with disabilities, delivering more independence and greater equality of opportunity. Jisc subject specialist Julia Taylor and National Star College student, Murray Field, assess the impact.

Murray Field

What tech do you use every day?

I use apps to manage my environment and maximise my independence, and I use Alexa every day at National Star College.

I recently moved into a new flat, and I’m planning to get a few environmental controls, including a smart thermostat to help me control my heating, some smart bulbs, strip lights to control my lights, and smart blinds. These will all be connected to my Alexa so I can use my voice to control them. I also have an iPad and my mobile phone, and I use Amazon Fire Stick for TV.

Back at my parents’ home, I have all the above plus PS4, Nintendo Switch and a laptop. I control my music and Spotify with Alexa, and also use it for the weather forecast, general questions, and to find the meaning of words. It’s educational.

How has tech been useful to you during lockdown?

When my college’s classrooms closed during the COVID-19 lockdown, technology played a bigger role in my life than ever. I used it to contact my family and friends on Facetime. I also used the internet, played games, and kept occupied with Netflix. I used Microsoft Teams for online teaching sessions and for collaborating with others, and I could carry on with my lectures too. That was good as it meant I could see others and stay connected. The only downside was that connection was not always good.

We now have multiple Microsoft Teams calls with different departments, job mentors and tutors. I have adapted very quickly. I initially set Teams up at home with my dad, but transitioning over to college was easy. I find the messaging and screen sharing very useful in lessons. It has been essential for some things, especially student union meetings.

What do you like about tech and why?

With good tech, you can keep in touch with anyone - wherever they are in the world. I find the voice activated assistive tech exciting and versatile. Tech is also great for gaming.

I have now been to Jisc’s annual edtech event, Digifest, twice. Last year, I was able to work with life-size robots that I controlled with a VR headset. I could make them move and talk; whatever I did, they did! I find this sort of tech very exciting for the future.

At Digifest this year, I did some presenting with another student from college, showing some adaptable controllers for computer games that can help people that would otherwise have difficulty holding a PlayStation or Xbox controller. That was an amazing and exciting experience, and it was the first time I’ve ever done any presenting. I am very proud of myself for doing it. And I enjoyed the event too. I tried the Genie booth, where my image was taken by various cameras, then displayed on a wall as a 30-foot-high hologram. I thought that was very impressive.

How might tech improve your life in the future?

As tech improves and we learn more, we will see much faster connection times. I think that assistive tech will only improve. The Xbox adaptive controller, for example, has lots of sockets in the back, so you can plug in different types of switches or joysticks, and you can program each individual switch to do different things - for example forwards, backwards, left and right, etc. That’s great, especially for people with a disability, because it will enable much more freedom.

I think it is important for people with disabilities to help improve tech, working to shape and inform tools to help them work and live differently.

Personally, I find augmented reality (AR) and artificial intelligence (AI) very interesting and look forward to seeing where they go next. In terms of employment and independent living, I think voice-controlled tech will really assist me in the future.

I want to create my own business designing technologies. That’s why I was invited to Digifest 2020; I really want to improve how tech supports disabled people, and I’m eager to understand more about it. I’m interested in developing add-ons for wheelchairs – such as solar panels built into an electric wheelchair to keep the battery fully charged so it can go further. Cooling systems built into the seat could also be great, or an automatic foldable canopy for when it rains.

For young people like me, technology is the future. Improvements in adaptable technology are useful and exciting – and it is critical that we contribute our voices, experiences and suggestions to ensure the full potential of tech to support disabled learners is met.

New approaches to teaching, learning and assessment will be discussed at Digifest 2021.

This story is featured as part of our annual review 2019-20. Read the other stories.