Making technology work for disabled people

New technologies aren’t always up to scratch for disabled people.

Mainstream devices can be highly adaptable but don’t do a great job of meeting disabled people’s needs. Technology designed especially for disabled people can be very good at meeting needs, but is often expensive and doesn’t do everything a mainstream device can.

So as part of BT’s Connected Society programme Scope, BT and the RCA’s Helen Hamlyn Centre for Inclusive Design explored how we can start to close this gap between mainstream and disability-specific technology.

Our report Enabling Technology (PDF document) found that the key to creating enabling technology is, wherever possible, to support disabled people to create their own solutions.

This means focusing on the person, not the system  – on adaptability and flexibility rather than rigid codes and standards.

It can be a difficult shift to make for manufacturers and service providers, but creating ways to bring disabled people ‘closer’ to technology can have real benefits, bringing down costs and increasing independence.

Here’s three key ways we think this can happen:

1. Adapt mainstream technology

By far the best way to use technology to support disabled people to live more independently is to adapt already existing mainstream devices.

Sheni using the pop-up readerAn example is the ‘Pop-up Reader’, an innovative prototype inspired by Sheni – a visually impaired singer who needed a better way to read written lyrics.

Sheni already had a smartphone, so the team built a cheap, easy-to-make stand to hold her phone – and the page – in the right place. Crucially, it also folds up and fits into her handbag.

Crucially, this simple, easy-to-make stand costs a few pounds to make – compared with between £500 and £2000 for a specially made device.

Find out more about the Pop-up Reader, or even try making your own.

2. Build easy-to-tailor products

To make technology work for every disabled person, it makes sense to tailor devices as much as possible to suit individuals. Building this approach into product design is often the best way to achieve this.

To show what we mean by this, we created a new approach to computer hardware called ‘Tailored Touch’.

Using cardboard, a cheap circuit board and paint that conducts electricity, Tailored Touch can be used to build a range of things like keyboards or a computer mouse.

Lyn, a musician from the Paraorchestra, had a number of challenges using her instrument through a touch screen device. She struggled to control the instrument accurately enough to play live with the rest of the orchestra.

So the project team worked with Lyn to build a new musical keyboard, using only cardboard, paint that conducts electricity, and a cheap circuit board. Christened the Lynstrument, this approach completely changed the way she plays live through her computer.

Lyn using the Lynstrument

This approach can also be used to enable anyone who struggles to use traditional interfaces – such as  a mouse or keyboard – to get online.

Learn more about ‘Tailored Touch’ and the Lynstrument, and make your own device.

3. Measure accessibility using timed task completion

Online services such as shopping or banking can be really helpful for disabled people – but they aren’t always fully accessible.

Although most sites now meet accessibility standards, our research found that some disabled people still struggle to use these services.

This is because there are so many different technologies disabled people use to go online  that it’s difficult to continue updating rigid codes and standards. This means that even if designers tick all the boxes, they may still end up with a website that isn’t completely accessible.

So our report argues that we need more responsive ways of measuring the accessibility of digital services, focusing on the person not the system.

One way to do this is to time how long it takes a disabled person to complete tasks online compared with non-disabled users of the same site. If it takes longer for a disabled person to finish a task, the site just isn’t accessible enough.

Our report sets out a clear philosophy for involving disabled people far more in the way technology is designed, used and evaluated by supporting disabled people to create their own solutions.

We’ll be doing more on the theme of technology over the coming months, so watch this space and get in touch if you want to find out more. We’d also love to see your videos and photos of building these ideas – so get in touch via Twitter or Facebook.