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The Good Hacker - Taking Everyday Tech and Making it Life-Changing

Technology opens up the world for disabled people. Whether it's switching a light off on your own at the end of the night, choosing what channel to watch or being able to communicate, say yes, no or whatever you want - technology brings independence.

Technology opens up the world for disabled people. Whether it's switching a light off on your own at the end of the night, choosing what channel to watch or being able to communicate, say yes, no or whatever you want - technology brings independence.

As an assistive technologist at a school for disabled children and young people, run by the disability charity Scope, my job involves working with students and teachers to make learning more accessible through technology. Even if it's a student being able to type their name for the first time, which may take half an hour, it's worth it to see the look on the student's face. It's the feeling of 'I did that, nobody else did it for me.'

That's why I'm really excited that Scope is working with Virgin Media in a two-year partnership that's about using technology to transform disabled people's lives. Not only will they be investing in more accessible technology, we'll also be able to access Virgin Media's technical expertise.1

One thing that is making a huge difference is that the mainstream tech companies, like Microsoft and Apple, are realising that there's a massive market they've been neglecting. Companies are now working hard to make mainstream software and devices accessible.

I look forward to any new technology being released and giving it a whirl seeing how they've made it accessible, tinkering with it. That's my favourite thing to do.

We've used both the iPad and Surface Pro as environmental control systems by adding accessible communications software (Grid 3). We can also add an input device that meets the needs of the user such as EyeGaze. This technology allows the user to control the movement onscreen by using their eyes.

This enables our students to control their environment - switch on the television, change the channel, check their social media feeds, make a phone call - all with one tablet that was purchased on the high street, with a few tweaks here and there.

Within that system the only specialised equipment is the software, Grid 3, but we often check sites like Github, Instructables or Google Warehouse where new product hacks and designs to make devices more accessible are shared openly.

The community of people interested in assistive technology is growing. Young, upcoming developers are starting to tap into the market and see there is a massive gap. They're releasing products for free to test out. People are recognising there is a real need for this kind of stuff. The software out there is currently incredibly expensive.

A software developer has just released an open-source alternative to pricey commercial devices called OptiKey - free communications software that we can be used through touchscreen, mouse, eyegaze and webcam. It's amazing to release something like that for free and absolutely vital to keep costs down when disabled people and families with disabled children already face so many extra costs.

A lot of specific tech items, especially from companies that have created it specifically for people with additional needs, are also really expensive. We use a lot of off-the-shelf technology to ensure that our costs, and the costs for parents, are as low as possible. Accessibility options with iPads or Windows tablets are already there and are really good.

We let parents know about deals and where you can get things more cheaply. If there's any support or training needed we offer that within the school.

A positive future

Wearable technology like the Apple watch and Google Glass are exciting prospects to make the world more accessible. The big tech companies do have an obligation if they're going to make something, to make sure it can be used by everyone. Wearable technology can help people live more independently.

I'd love to see more fun things for adults. There's a lot of work developing games for disabled children and what's currently on offer becomes very childish, even for 13 to 14 year olds. Some games are beginning to integrate EyeGaze; I think the next thing for companies to look at is downtime.

A few of our students have brothers and sisters and they want to do the same things they do. We're in the process of tinkering about with different game consoles - a PlayStation and an X-Box. The Kinect for Xbox picks up your body movements, and we've been experimenting with using switches on a PlayStation. We've adapted it so the buttons on the controller are all linked to big switches, because the students don't have the fine motor skills to use the controller.

Just being able to do the same things as your siblings or your friends outside of school, like being able to beat your brother at PlayStation, is really important. So that's been really awesome.

Developments in communication technology mean the future for our students is really bright. Assistive technology gives them a voice and means they are able to express what they want and how they want it. Technology enables our students to participate in a wider range of classes, improve their confidence and gives them independence. It also lays the foundations for a positive future.

Footnote: In July 2015 Virgin Media set a goal to transform the lives of disadvantaged people in the UK through digital technology and so launched a breakthrough two year partnership with disability charity Scope. With 53% of households in the UK including at least one disabled person, the £1m partnership aims to transform the lives of disabled people through digital technology. Please see here for more info.

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