Disabled student with assistant using a computer

Disability innovation: Introducing tech fortnight with eye gazes and music

Disability Innovations is a blog series that gathers some of the most interesting new products and services that aim to make disabled people’s lives easier.

We are having a tech fortnight to focus on technology and hope it will inspire more innovation in the disability field. In this post we hear from Chris, director of The Apogee Project, who tells us which assistive technology he thinks is making a difference to disabled people.  

I work with disabled people all over the UK.  Most of these people are unable to express their feelings, emotions, wants and needs. They can’t tell us when and if they are happy or sad. It is usually impossible for them to initiate a conversation – or even get involved in the conversation – without a huge amount of support and facilitation.

Every day I travel the country meeting people who have a whole range of abilities and diagnoses – from Rett Syndrome to Cerebral palsy. My job is all about creating opportunities for people, with the help of assistive technology: from switches to eye gaze and head trackers  to sensory rooms. My small team and I work with individuals, their families and support networks to integrate technology into their lives and help them to communicate, experience and express themselves.

Which technologies work the best?

That is a huge question. Working predominately with disabled people who have profound and multiple disabilities, I have found the most exciting developments and opportunities coming from the fantastic leap forward in Eyegaze technology and the resources developed around that technology.

Eyegaze technology has enabled us as professionals, support workers and family members to gain an insight into what someone is thinking and understanding, by being able to track and tangibly observe their reaction to stimuli and what captures their attention on a screen. There are,  of course,  a wide variety of variables and, in some cases, large obstacles to overcome – and if that’s the case, then that is the starting point for our journey.

We have seen young people start off by moving lights around a screen with no demonstrable signs that they understand they are causing a reaction and then with the right support and teaching strategies move on to use Eyegaze with a computer as a communication aid. I hear so many similar stories as this scenario plays out more and more in schools and homes across the world.

So, what have I learnt?

The biggest learning curve has been around our expectations when working with someone and the power of motivation. Quite often people are not given the opportunity to use certain technology or explore certain activities because they haven’t demonstrated an understanding of what we might think should be a prerequisite skill to that activity. If someone hasn’t demonstrated an understanding of cause and effect, for example, then people often don’t try out choice-making activities.

What would I recommend?

At The Apogee Project, we often use a fantastic piece of music software called Beamz with our eyegaze users. It requires a relatively accurate manipulation of the mouse pointer across four purple lines to activate a musical sound. There are also small buttons to control certain functions, such as turning on the background music. Which helps disabled people with limited communication to interact and communicate.

People who we have struggled to engage in any kind of activity will work for an hour or more moving a mouse pointer for music! Another huge motivator can be social interaction with peers. Playing simple switch games and introducing an element of competition creates a fantastic energy and just seems to motivate people into achieving things outside their assessed level of understanding.

I believe technology really does have the opportunity to unlock potential for disabled people. The important thing is not to give up. It’s all about spotting the little things – those seemingly insignificant details that can send you exploring in a new and fresh direction with someone. It’s always worth presuming that someone understands more than they are able to demonstrate. That’s what keeps us pushing the boundaries for them.

This blog is for information only. Scope does not endorse this product or service. We try to make sure our information is up to date and accurate at the time of publishing.

Chris is running a technology question and answer session on our community about assistive technology. If you have any questions, then get involved.