Disabled man in wheelchair smiling

Disability Innovation: A brief history of my Communication Aids

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 Simon, and his journey to the right communication aid. You can ask Simon questions about technology on our online community.

 Since I was eight years old, I have used online keyboards with a chin or head switch and operated various on screen keyboards.

When I was about ten, I had a BBC computer with a program called Beeblink. In those days, there was no word prediction as we know it. This program had a word bank. How it worked was if I wanted a word beginning with ‘E’, I would select the letter ‘E’ and go into the word bank with words beginning with that letter. Then hope the word I wanted was there for me to select. This was long winded because of how it worked.

The advent of the personal computer came and so did on screen keyboards. Word prediction was introduced as well which made typing much quicker.

Windows, on screen keyboards and word prediction

The Windows operating system came along and on screen keyboards evolved. For many years, I used a piece of software called EZ Keys. This was a really good package as it gave me full control of the computer using a head switch. It had word prediction and I could set up my own abbreviations as well. For example, if I typed ASAP, it would type “as soon as possible”. EZ Keys also had a facility for me to use the mouse which was really useful and this software package was also on my communication aid.

When I obtained my first communication aid, it was really amazing because I could drive up to people and have a chat. This was before Windows so it looked basic compared to the communication systems today. It gave me a huge sense of independence as I was in total control of who I chose to talk to. Since Windows has been developed, I have had a number of communication aids with EZ Keys on and they were great because they were like mini computers. This meant I could also do my college work on them, which gave me a lot more flexibility as to how I could conduct my affairs.

About eight years ago, I wanted to try something different so I obtained a Lightwriter, operated by a head switch. It was nice and small but I did not like how it scanned. For example, it had a ‘QWERTY’ keyboard and if I wanted a letter at the end of the row, it took ages to scan to it. However with EZ Keys, the rows were shorter which meant it took less time to get to the desired letters.

Finding EyeGaze

Four years ago, I was getting fed up with my typing speed because I was typing about two words a minute, so I contacted someone I know who works in Augmented and Alternative Communication (AAC). He told me that he was working for a company called Tobii who makes communication aids which operate with eye gaze software. I had previously had trials with eye gaze technology but he advised me that it had changed since then and that this system accommodated movement of the head. I instantly said I would like to have a go and I had a two week trial of it and I found I was typing quicker. At the end of the trial, I did not want to let it go back.

I definitely wanted one so I approached a charity for some funding and within about a year, I received a Tobii and I was really happy. Tobii has a piece of software called Communicator which has facilities such as mobile phone, email and writing documents; each of these functions has a different page set. A page set consists of pages with buttons on. For instance, a page set for email would have buttons such as “compose email”, “select receiver” and “send email”. I can customise those buttons and where they are on the screen to suit my needs and way of working.

Having Tobii has changed my life because I can talk to whoever I want to and they do not need to have knowledge about how to use my communication aid. Since I have had my Tobii, I find it much easier to conduct my life. Tobii also allows me to text people as well which is great because I can keep in touch with friends and family easily.

The Communicator software is a very adaptable package. People at all levels can use it. People can create vocabulary page sets with symbols on and even whole phrases on. People can be really creative with it.

In conclusion, I have been lucky to have been born at the right time to take advantage of technology – I could not live without it.

Talk to Simon on our online community.

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