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2023 AT Scholar Reports

07/02/2023

JENNETTE GREENWOOD REPORT

Jennette Greenwood is AAC Coordinator at Pendle View Primary Special School and works with children on a range of high and low tech communication devices, develops personalised communication systems to allow children to access an education.

“I was overwhelmed by how many UK companies were at ATIA. We have some amazing companies leading in AT/AAC technology and online accessible educational programs used all over the world”.

ATIA is a huge well-organised event with many different seminars with inspirational speakers along with an array of companies’ in the exhibition hall. I was overwhelmed by how many companies from the UK were at the ATIA. If there’s one thing I’ve taken away from my week in the USA is that we have some amazing companies in the UK leading in AT/AAC technology and online accessible educational programs that are being used all over the world. As a country, we should be celebrating this and ensuring the right funding is going into schools and the wider community to help all children and adults have a voice and access the outside world.

 

“If we don’t give all children and adults the right tools to communicate and access their environment how do we truly know their full potential”.

One of the seminars I attended, All Access Life, was presented by Brad Heaven and Dan O’Connor. They told us their story. Dan started working with Brad as his full-time aide in mainstream high school. Brad is a non-verbal CP and uses eye gaze to communicate and access his environment. Over the years Brad and Dan have developed a great friendship and they now have their own non-profit business together called All Access Life. Listening to Brad’s story confirmed to me if we don’t give all children and adults the right tools to communicate and access their environment how do we truly know their full potential.

In the UK and very much the same in the US children/adults have to meet a certain criteria to be awarded funding for communication/AT devices. Everyone who needs AAC/AT should be given the funds to buy the necessary equipment to allow them to access the outside world, without the funding and the right technology how can we ever understand the full potential of these children and adults?

I am dyslexic and rely on tools to help me spell and use the correct grammar as well as confirming with other people that I am spelling words correctly and the format is okay. Without these tools and help from others, I wouldn’t be able to produce this document. My personal experience of going through school was not very positive I was constantly told I was stupid and put in a remedial group. I was told I wouldn’t achieve anything. I wasn’t diagnosed with dyslexia till I went to college up till this point I could never understand why I struggled to read and write. I had never heard of dyslexia.

 

Both this year’s AT Scholars are dyslexic and use AT for their work and lives.

Due to my experiences at school, it took me a long time before I told anyone I was dyslexic because I was always meant to feel stupid. Parliamentary groups need to fully understand the needs of all children and adults and I would welcome any decision-makers to visit our school and spend time with the children who need funding for AAC/AT but don’t meet the criteria needed. The only way forward for these children is through charities which is not always the best policy as parents can be left with equipment that they don’t truly know how best to use with their children.

ATIA is a great place to meet like-minded people who are passionate about helping and developing AAC/AT for the children and adults we work with. It also allowed me to speak to AAC/AT who are using this amazing technology that is being produced.During my time at ATIA Karina Wallace from Inclusive TLC introduced me to many people including Janet DeSenzo who works for CTC Academy in New Jersey this was a great connection and we are hoping to develop a connection between our school and the CTC academy and possible arrange some zoom calls with classes that we work with and share ideas.

 

Janet DeSenzo and Jennette Greenwood

I also met a lady called Nada Jorna who works for BRIDGES in Canada. From meeting both Janet and Nada I am hoping to learn more about how support for AAC/AT users is developing both in the US and Canada and for us all to share the work we are doing.

During the week I also attended a seminar which was delivered by the AT team from the Guilford County Schools, North Carolina. Their presentation was about developing an AT Team in the school setting. I found this session very useful and informative as this is something we have already set up in our school at Pendle View Primary. In November 2022 our school delivered an information day to other schools on developing an AAC/AT within the school setting. Meeting the AT team from Guilford County is another great contact to share ideas with.

Technology is moving extremely fast it was fascinating to learn about new and emerging technology during the seminar on Saturday morning and explore the exhibition hall. I spoke to developers in the exhibition hall who are developing the Cognixion ONE computer interface with augmented reality wearable speech that looks similar to a VR headset https://one.cognixion.com/ It will be interesting to see how this device develops over time. It has a black visor which the user can see a computer screen layout on the inside and also see through it. With the device, you can access environmental controls and use it as a speech-generating device. The speech generated can also be seen on the outer side of the visor. After speaking to the consultant, he explained that the device hasn’t been trialled on anyone younger than 13 at the moment. Hopefully, over time and with the development of technology the device would become smaller. My only concern is I can imagine some children feeling uncomfortable and enclosed using such a device. I can also see this device opening an all-new world to many people.

On Saturday morning I attended a seminar on Emerging Technology presented by Curt Johnson and Maria Kelley Assistive Technology Specialists from the University of Washington Centre. It was interesting to listen to an overview of old, new, and what’s coming in Technology again during our information day at school I talked about how technology has changed over the last 28 years. I have attached the PowerPoint on the emerging technology presentation as you might also find it interesting.

Representing the UK as British AT Scholar has been an amazing journey I feel very fortunate that I was able to attend hopefully parliamentary decision-makers will think about the comments I have made about funding and stop discriminating against children’s/adult’s abilities meeting certain criteria’s and change the assessment process for all children/adults with additions needs in the UK and allow funding for all making our country truly inclusive. Allowing everyone the right to a unique voice and access to the world around them.

Clockwise from the front: Nigel Wallace, Dave Gilbert, Bob Sagoo, Jennette (me), Sukhjit Gill; Chris Thornton, George Wallace, and Karina Wallace

Finally I would like to thank Karina, Nigel, and George Wallace from Inclusive TLC for making me part of their family while in Orlando. Dave Gilbert and Bob Sagoo from Pretorian Technologies, Chris Thornton, and Sukhjit Gill from Inclusive Technology for all their support while in Orlando.

And thank you to Martin Littler and everyone involved for awarding me the 2023 British Assistive Technology Scholarship, it has been a great honour to attend the ATIA in Orlando without the scholarship this is something I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to ever attend.

ROBERT MCLAREN REPORT

Robert McLaren is Head of Health and Accessibility at the think tank Policy Connect and manages the All Party Parliamentary Group for Assistive Technology.

“One real benefit for me was learning about how ATIA was putting Assistive Technology policy on the agenda in Congress and the White House”.

Not long after starting my career in policy I made the mistake of attempting to organize a meeting in Parliament on Assistive Technology for the beginning of February – I was soon made aware that many of the people I was planning to invite would be in Orlando at that time, for the annual ATIA conference. Since then I’ve been aware of how central ATIA is to the AT sector – and not only because of is strategic location in sunny Florida! The conference, which focuses on educational assistive technology, has become the global meeting place for specialists and developers.

This year, and five years after my naive attempt to schedule a meeting during ATIA, I was able, finally, to take part in the Conference myself. This is thanks to the AT Scholarship created by Martin Littler and Inclusive Technology. In 2023, I was pleased to receive the scholarship alongside from Pendle View School (which recently won Setting of The Year at the Communication Matters awards).

My first task upon arriving in Orlando was to meet-up with Laura Winward Kaloi, who works with ATIA to advocate for better assistive technology policy in the USA. Laura and I enjoyed comparing notes on the experience of informing policy at opposite sides of the Atlantic. We then reviewed our slides to get really for our join talk, which served the AT policy landscape in both countries.

Giving this talk was a good opportunity to step back and consider the overall picture in the UK – including reflecting on how far we’ve come in the last half-decade or so. We’ve seen assistive technology play a greater and greater role in Government policy such as the EdTech Strategy (2019)pandemic response efforts, and the SEND and alternative provision improvement plan (2023); and the government has now articulated a vision to help make the UK the most accessible place in the world to live and work with technology. But the real benefit of giving this talk was hearing Laura’s remarks and learning about the achievement of ATIA and others to put assistive technology on the agenda in Congress and the White House. For example, it was encouraging to learn how The Century Assistive Technology Act received support from both major parties – reminding us that AT is a genuinely cross-party issue.

It is hard to make a general assessment of which country has a better policy framework for AT as the two systems are so different – but the US does provide some important lessons for UK policy makers. For example, because The American Printing House for the Blind receives fairly stable federal funding for the provision of resources to blind people in education, it is able to help drive innovation in AT for visual impairment. Innovators know that if they develop a valuable product they can win a substantial procurement contract from the Printing House and that serves to incentivize investment in R&D. Another example is the Assistive Technology Act which provides funding for states to spend on AT. The Act requires reporting on state programs and this allows The Center for Assistive Technology Act Data Assistance to collate evidence of the use of AT across the country – for example, many States offer loans of AT products and it’s interesting to see that, in 2021, speech and communication AT was the most commonly loaned product type.

On Saturday mornings amateur developers meet to exchange ideas at ATIA’s busy ‘Maker Sessions’.

ATIA is jam-packed with sessions on everything from AAC assessment to, social participation, to new tech for mathematics. For me, what was most valuable was delving deeper on technologies that I knew about but haven’t had the chance to really see in action. Two sessions stand out in this regard: one on Acapela Group’s voice banking and one on using eye-gaze with iPads. I was struck by the progress that has been made in voice banking, including how the training times have been cut down. Sometimes the most important innovation isn’t a new function of tech but making the tech easier to work with: taking less time to set-up, being more reliable, having a more intuitive interface etc. I don’t think there is much public awareness of voice-banking but there is of course much discussion of ‘deep fake’ audio, which uses much the same underlining technology to make it possible to type some text and have it spoken in the voice of a well known figure. This is a reminder that disability is not yet central to the public conversations around AI – something the Policy Connect’s ATech Policy Lab is planning to address with a session on AI and accessibility at this year’s London Tech Week.

The session on eye-gaze and iPad was lead by Bradley Heaven and Daniel O’Connor. Bradley uses eye-tracking with an iPad. Bradley uses TD Pilot which forms a case around the iPad, enabling access to the table via eye-gaze and transforming it into an AAC device, complete with software (TD Talk), speaker and communication window. But iOS’s built-in accessibility features are key to making this all work – in particular Brad uses ‘assistive touch’. As the name suggests, ‘assistive touch’ was designed to make touch access an viable option for a wider range of people, including those with limb difference or hand tremors etc, but it turns out that by creating a broader array of touch options, the iOS has also allowed totally new input methods such as eye-gaze. Bradley showed how he does everything from communicating, to taking pictures to post on social media, to playing games – demonstrating his unique ways of interacting with different apps. The presentation showed how assistive technology becomes part of our workflows and lifestyles. It was also an excellent example of how built-in accessibility and specialized assistive technology now function together – it’s why many now use the broader term ATech to cover both assistive and accessible technology.

Finally, one of the highlights of the conference was visiting with the tech developers who were exhibiting in Orlando. I had the chance to learn about new technology such as CentralReach’s Avail which can help enable supported employment, and Cognixion who are levering emerging technology for AAC.

It was also remarkable how many companies from the UK were taking part: HelpKidzLearnPretorianMatchWareDolphinInclusive TechnologyHabitat LearnTextHelp and many others. In recent years my colleague Clive Gilbert has been leading engagement with the Department for Business and Trade, and there is growing interest in assistive technology as an export area. Indeed the APPG for Assistive Technology is planning a meeting in parliament on this topic and I hope to draw on my experience at ATIA for my remarks at that event.

I hope you will see, from this selective overview, that taking part in AITA was a fantastic experience. But the true value of the AT Scholarship is the lasting impact scholars can make: building links with the US sector and informing the work we do here in this country. I look forward to continuing to use my experience of ATIA 2023 to do both.