Guest blogs
If this is your first visit, check out the community guide. You will have to Join us or Sign in before you can post.

Ask an Assistive Technologist

AT_TrevorAT_Trevor Member Posts: 11
edited April 9 in Guest blogs
Hi everyone, my name is Trevor and I have worked as an Assistive Technologist at Scope's Beaumont College in Lancaster for the past five years. As 3rd December is the UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities, we thought we'd run a Q&A on Assistive Technology. So if you have any questions about how technology can be used to give greater independence to disabled people please feel free to ask!


  • EllaBEllaB Member Posts: 35 Listener
    I've just been reading the blog about your students at Beaumont College and I think it's fantastic to see how technology is supporting their communication needs. My brother has had very little exposure to technology, but I'd love to know if there's anything we could get to improve his communication. He has Down's Syndrome and severe speech difficulties. He is now 58 and recently went deaf, so we are currently communicating with him using a white board. Not very high tech at all! He has fairly profound learning disabilities so any suggestions would need to take that into account.
  • AT_TrevorAT_Trevor Member Posts: 11
    Hi Ella,
    The rise of relatively low cost tablet computers means that technology based communication tools are more easily available than ever before. There are hundreds of apps available - and that in itself can be a problem because it can be hard to know where to start! Here are links to a couple of websites which might be helpful re app choice for Apple and Android devices:

    I'm guessing that your brother would be able to use a touch screen? However for people who can't, a Windows based tablet might possibly be a better choice:

    Does your brother have access to a Speech and Language Therapist? If so they would be able to advise on what vocabulary should be included, how it is organised, whether symbols should be used etc. They (or a GP) could also make a referral for a specialist assessment if appropriate. The way that communication aids are funded is changing at the moment - this will be through NHS England via specialist assessment 'hubs'. You can find information about this here:
    (Note that this is for England only. Communication Matters also lists assessment centres elsewhere in the UK, but the funding model varies).

    I hope these initial pointers are of some use, and that you are successful in improving your brother's communication.
  • EllaBEllaB Member Posts: 35 Listener
    That's really helpful thanks. He doesn't currently have any access to a SALT, but it's a very good point. He probably should be re-assessed now he has lost his hearing. I will look into that. Big help!
  • LinTLinT Member Posts: 2
    My grandson is aged 21 and has severe Cerebral Palsy. He cannot speak nor can he move voluntarily and we have had so many hopes of him being able to use technology with very little results. The cost is very expensive for equipment especially when we dont know if he would be able to use anything successfully. He has left education now and neither schools were able to get him to use anything so I dont suppose there is much hope out there today?
  • AT_TrevorAT_Trevor Member Posts: 11
    Assistive Technology has advanced rapidly over the last few years, so things may have changed even since your grandson left school. Probably the most important development has been in the area of eye gaze technology which has become significantly cheaper and more portable. You may want to attend an event such as a Communication Matters roadshow or NAIDEX, to get an overview of what is available and have a chance to try it out. I will post some links to useful info later today.
  • AT_TrevorAT_Trevor Member Posts: 11
    edited September 2015
    The schedule for next year's Communication Matters roadshows doesn't seem to be available yet, but when it is the info will be here:

    Another option might be to request one of the companies who sell eye gaze technology to visit you to carry out an assessment.
    It is important to point out that eye gaze is not a 'one size fits all' solution that works for everyone but it certainly may be worth investigating.
    One company who offers an assessment service free of charge is Smartbox:

    As well as advances in the hardware, it's also worth mentioning that the software that goes with it has developed significantly in recent years also. Whilst eye gaze was initially targetted at advanced users who could use it to control a full communication package, software is now available which is suitable for people working at a cause and effect level, through to choice making, communication and right up to full computer control. Here are a couple of examples:
  • Darren_ADarren_A Member Posts: 1
    Hey Trevor, you are doing a great job! Keep up the good work
  • LinTLinT Member Posts: 2
    Thank you Trevor
  • AT_TrevorAT_Trevor Member Posts: 11
    You are welcome LinT!
    Thanks Darren_A. I'm by no means doing this alone though - there are a team of 3 Assistive Technologists here at Beaumont College, and we have colleagues in this role at Scope's Ingfield Manor, Craig y Parc and Meldreth Manor schools too.
    Through the JISC funded DART (Disseminating Assistive Roles and Technology) Project, we've also seen this role created in several other colleges - both General Further Education and Independent Specialist Colleges:
  • ColourBlindOrg01ColourBlindOrg01 Member Posts: 2 Listener
    Please note that software for AT very often ignores people with colour blindness so if someone is colour blind the software might not be suitable for them. Particularly important for children who are non-verbal as there are no tests to diagnose them at the moment and most colour blinds are not aware of their condition. 1 in 12 boys and 1 in 200 girls have inherited red/green colour vision deficiency and other forms can be acquired alongside other medical conditions or medications. The younger the child the more likely the AT software is to use red and green to distinguish between easy tasks - colour blind children can't tell the difference between these two (and lots of other) colour combinations. For more info search 'colour blindness' on Scope website or NHS Choices - Colour Vision Deficiency or
  • JamesEJamesE Member Posts: 1
    I'd appreciate some clarity on the subject of colour blindness. I have red/green colour blindness but I don't seem to be greatly affected except that I have avoid trying to put two red items of clothing on for risk of offending people with the clash.

    I know that there are many degrees of effect but with Red/Green I was under the impression that suffers can associate the colour label with the colour they see and therefore can identify Red as red and Green as green.
  • ColourBlindOrg01ColourBlindOrg01 Member Posts: 2 Listener
    Hi James, it sounds like you might have a milder form. For those with more severe forms many colours can be confused. Severe green deficients for example readily mix up some greens with some pinks and greys (i.e. all can appear grey), some reds with greens/browns/oranges, blues with purples, bright greens with yellows and so on. Severe red deficients have trouble between some reds and black, bright pinks with blues and purples, mid greens with oranges etc. People with acquired deficiencies have issues with blues and yellows and any colours with an element of these in them. Most people with CVD can learn the colour of an object without seeing that colour as someone with normal colour vision does, so can learn to identify some colours via labels and then use experience when they come across that 'colour' again to guess that the new object is a 'known' colour but often still make mistakes. Labels such as taupe and ochre are a bit trickier though! Please see our website for simulations of severe colour blindness and compare with the 'normal' images. You wont see the difference as colour normal people do but should still see a difference between the two if you have a mild condition.
  • AlexAlex Scope Posts: 1,324 Pioneering
    Hi Trevor,

    I've always been really impressed at the amazing work you do a Beaumont college, thanks for taking part in this Q&A!

    I'm curious to know - how do you keep up to date with the latest technology? And have you seen anything exciting on the horizon that you think will make a huge difference to the students you work with?

  • AT_TrevorAT_Trevor Member Posts: 11
    edited September 2015
    Hi Alex,

    No problem - it's been a pleasure to take part!

    I'm excited about the potential of gesture control for our students. Using technology such as the Microsoft Kinect, Leap Motion or even a humble webcam, the software can be programmed to recognise any repeatable gesture that an individual can make and map that against an action eg changing channels on your TV, or launching a particular piece of software. We have been working with Matt Oppenheim, a researcher at Lancaster University, on some prototypes around this idea:

    Another promising development for the future is the mainstreaming of eye gaze technology. Although the price has dropped significantly over recent years, the equipment is still relatively expensive and may be out of reach for many people. However, it is likely that we will start to see eye gaze cameras installed in cars (eg a warning is sounded if you take your eyes off the road for too long, or fall asleep) and mainstream computers (so that you can scroll up and down a web page with a glance for example). Intel has invested heavily in Tobii, the market leader in this area, and they will be keen to see this become a technology that is used much more widely and therefore we will see the price drop. Just last week, Pizza Hut launched an 'eye gaze menu' that can recommend what you would probably like to eat by analysing what 'caught your eye' when you perused it:

    Lastly, I am hopeful that cloud based computing will be able to deliver a unified experience for disabled users in the future regardless of what device or operating system they are using at the time. Imagine if an AAC user could seamlessly transfer between their communication aid whilst at college, an iPhone on the way home, and a web browser when their device goes away for repair. All their settings, vocabulary, recently used phrases would be present on all of these options. Or take this a stage further - imagine that on your PC at home you use enlarged fonts and a high contrast colour scheme. Now imagine that when you go to the cash machine those same settings automatically appear. Sounds far fetched? Well, the Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure (GPII) is working to make this become a reality:

    As to how I keep up to date with the latest tech - it's a daily challenge! A combination of tech news sites such as Engadget and Ars Technica and more specialist forums such as Communication Matters. Plus a handpicked selection of people and organisations on Twitter (feel free to have a look at who I follow - @ mobbst)
  • MattMMattM Member Posts: 3
    Hi Trevor,

    It's great to see what you have achieved with the students at Beaumont College! I'm after some advice for my 11-year old daughter with severe visual impairment, CP and significant learning difficulties. She attends a special school and is currently working on "pre-reading" and "pre-writing" skills. So, on reading for instance she is working on matching words and identifying numbers and letters. On writing, she is working on making different combinations of horizontal and vertical lines. The trouble is that her combination of visual and physical difficulties are impacting on her ability to progress in learning these skills. So, when trying to make the correct horizontal and vertical lines she finds it difficult to perform the act of writing at the same time as concentrating on looking at what she is trying to copy. She ends up looking first, trying to remember it and then trying to reproduce it - quite a challenge. When reading she finds it difficult to process too many words or symbols at once - her visual scanning skills are limited. She loves using the iPad and touch-screen computer. Can you suggest any apps that would help with these kinds of pre-reading and pre-writing skills for a child with these disabilities? Many thanks

  • catherine2catherine2 Member Posts: 8
    Hello Trevor, apologies for being a little late to the discussion. My 6 year old son is visually impaired, has no speech, and sufficient use of his hands only for a big mac switch. This year I have pushed his school and SLT harder about how we can unlock his communication as he has so much to say. For now we manage with auditory scanning, body movement (mostly extension) and facial expression. As his Mother I manage quite well, but other people that don't spend as much time with him find it hard to converse with him and understand his needs and wants. As a team, we got a referral to GOSH and were assessed by their specialist SALT's. The conclusion was not to rush anything, to carry on as we were (observing his reaction in context, encouraging him to join in, giving him experiences), but with no specific reference to an assistive technology (although they did rule out eye pointing for now). I have been asking the teams for case examples of people with my Son's skills and how they leveraged devices etc to communicate but have drawn a big blank. The 4 examples on the Scope email are some of the first I've seen and really helpful. So may I ask you, in your opinion, is 6 too young to be exploring this when the child has complex needs, or is there anything more I could be doing to help him?
  • AT_TrevorAT_Trevor Member Posts: 11
    Hi Matt,

    Perhaps she could use a stylus and practice the line making activities directly on the touch screen? You could use a simple art / drawing package, open the writing exercise as an image, and ask her initially to trace over the top of the lines using a different colour. She could then perhaps move over time to drawing the lines at a different point on the screen, but remaining close enough to the originals to avoid the issue of having to look, remember and draw. There are also lots of apps available to teach the tracing of letter shapes. I don't have one in particular I can recommend, but it might be worth investigating?
  • AT_TrevorAT_Trevor Member Posts: 11
    Hi Catherine,

    It is difficult for me to comment, not having met your son. In children with complex needs, I don't think it is possible to suggest a specific age at which assistive technology should be introduced as each individual's profile is so different. There is a balance to be struck between not being in too much of a rush, and not making use of something which could be genuinely helpful. As a parent, I would encourage you to familiarise yourself with assistive technology that is available - perhaps by attending an event such as the Communication Matters conference, or reviewing what is available from a seller such as Inclusive Technology. You will then be in a position to have an informed discussion with professionals working with your son as to the most appropriate plan moving forward.
This discussion has been closed.