Monday, November 23, 2015

OptiKey: Free, open source software to help people with reduced motor functions use computers

Julius Sweetland is a London-based developer who works with financial software.  But for the past three and a half years, he's been working independently on a free and open source piece of assistive technology called OptiKey

Optikey is designed to allow people with physical and speech impairments to use essential computer functions, including an on-screen keyboard and mouse, by simply moving their eyes.  Paired with an eye-tracking device, the software lets users click, type, and even convert what they've written into audio, an especially useful feature for individuals who cannot speak.  See it in action here:

Sweetland was inspired to create the software after his aunt, Gill, was diagnosed with motor neuron disease.  He was disappointed with the options she was offered to help her communicate when her own abilities began to disappear, and as he says in the video below, he wanted to try making his own solution.  Other alternatives were prohibitively expensive, but Sweetland released his for free, saying that it didn't feel right to profiteer.  For full hands-free capabilities the software does have to be paired with an external eye-tracking device, but it is designed to work with many possible brands, including some that are available for around $100.

The development process wasn't always easy.  Sweetland went through several prototypes and tried different types of external cameras, including one converted from a PlayStation.  The tests ultimately allowed him to design something that would work well with existing technologies, and, eventually, he was ready to share it with an actual person.  He worked with the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability in Putney, London, and was able to receive feedback on his work from a patient there (a patient who, coincidentally, was an ex-software developer himself).  Sweetland says he used this feedback to help improve the next version of the software.

To type using OptiKey, an individual looks at a key on the on-screen keyboard for long enough to "press" it (the time delay prevents keys from accidentally being pressed when a user merely looks at them briefly).  To shorten the process of typing out words, a feature similar to the "swiping" process available on many smart phone keyboards is available, which users can utilize by looking at the first letter of a word long enough to select it and then simply glancing at the middle letters before focusing on the last letter long enough to select it and form the word.  Other familiar smart phone-esque features include suggestions for words and phrases that pop up when a user starts to type.  A "Speak" button is also available next to the on-screen keyboard's input field, which can be "pressed" to convert the typed text into audio.

Currently the program only works on computers running the Microsoft Windows operating system, but Sweetland says that a number of volunteers have offered to help make it compatible with the Macintosh operating system.  It's already designed to be compatible with voice banking programs, which allow users to record their voices (or "bank" them) for the future.  That way, when using the text-to-speech feature later, they can still sound a bit like themselves.

You can learn more about Julius Sweetland and Optikey on Upvoted, Business Insider, and Digital Trends.  All of the computer code for OptiKey is available for free on the code-sharing site GitHub.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Oregon Girl With Down Syndrome Becomes Model

At 2 years old, Ellie Stafford of Aurora, Oregon is already on the path to a possible career.  The toddler is a child model, posing for her first time last August in a shoot for Portland-based children's clothing brand Hooray Haroo.

Ellie has Down syndrome, and while her mother Tiffany Stafford had heard of an organization called Changing the Face of Beauty, a nonprofit which advocates for the inclusion of people with different abilities in media and advertisements, Stafford had not yet thought of having Ellie try modeling.  It wasn't until Ellie's brothers, ages 6 and 8, excitedly pointed out a Target ad featuring another child with Down syndrome that Stafford considered putting Ellie in front of the camera.

Realizing it would mean a lot for her sons to see someone like their sister in the media, Stafford began to investigate.  She sought out local modeling agents and sent them photos of Ellie, and not long afterward, Ellie signed with an agency to do print publications.  Ellie has already been called a natural, raising her shoulder while tilting her head to the side and resting an index finger against her cheek in her "modeling pose."  If there's a camera pointed at her, she doesn't need any prompting to give it a smile.

The news of Ellie's budding career comes at the same time as word began to circulate of Kayla Kosmalski, a child model with Down syndrome who walked in a GapKids show earlier this year.  Katie Driscoll, the founder and executive director of Changing the Face of Beauty (which partnered with Gap), recently said that almost 50% of people either have different abilities or know or love someone who does.  With such large numbers, she states, it is in brands's best interests to represent these individuals.

Stafford herself recently collaborated with Changing the Face of Beauty, forming a campaign called "Who's Next?" which encourages individuals with different abilities to urge retailers to make more inclusive advertisements.  Stafford isn't new to the world of organizations that are dedicated to improving the lives of people who have different abilities and their families; she was one of the founding members of the Down Syndrome Diagnosis Network, a site that aims to help new and expectant parents of children with Down syndrome, and she is still part of the advisory board.

Stafford believes that Ellie can inspire children and parents affected by Down syndrome, and she hopes that in the future there will be more understanding of people of all abilities.  Stafford not want to push Ellie down a path she doesn't wish to follow, however, and it's all right with her if Ellie does not wish to be a model.  But right now, with Ellie smiling at the camera, she's excited to help fight the stigmas against different abilities.

You can learn more about Ellie Stafford on (and in the same story featured on USA Today), on Upworthy, and from an earlier story on OregonLive.  Check out Changing the Face of Beauty, the nonprofit dedicated to having people with different abilities be featured in media and advertisements, on their website here.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Spotlight: Iris Halmshaw

By the age of 5, Iris Grace Halmshaw had art collectors from around the world bidding on her work.  Amounts have exceeded £4,000 (about $6,300 in 2014) for the paintings of the Leicestershire, England-born girl, and the now 6-year-old currently has over 152,000 Facebook likes.  Her work has been said to communicate an astonishing amount, perhaps especially impressive for a girl who, when she first started painting, could barely speak at all.

Iris has autism, diagnosed after her parents noticed that, at two years old, she rarely made eye contact and hadn't picked up any words.  After Iris was diagnosed, her parents—photographer Arabella Carter-Johnson and husband Peter-Jon Halmshaw—continued to do their own research on autism, which eventually led them to the idea of art therapy.

Iris started painting in March of 2013.  As part of a homeschool curriculum Carter-Johnson had created for her daughter, they taped paper to Iris's favorite table and let her paint whatever she liked.  And paint she did, but not with the usual technique of a toddler.  Instead, she filled the paper with a colorful impressionist style that would later earn her the title of "mini-Monet."

Iris painting in the kitchen #IrisGrace #Iris #IrisGracePainting #IrisGrace #art #artist #painting

A photo posted by Iris Grace (@irisgracepainting) on

Iris's mood changed as she painted too, becoming happy and free.  She may have trouble communicating vocally, but her mother says Iris uses her paintbrush as a way to convey her feelings now.  And with the money from sales of paintings and prints, the family has been able to continue Iris's weekly private therapies and hire a tutor to assist in her home education.  Carter-Johnson says that all the profits from the original paintings go into Iris's savings account, and profits from cards and prints go toward her speech and occupational therapies, as well as her music and yoga.  As of 2014, Iris was learning new words every day.

But even with all the publicity, Iris's parents have tried to keep her life as normal as possible.  Carter-Johnson notes that nothing has changed in Iris's world, and she hasn't done interviews or been to TV studios.  Austism affects Iris in many ways, and one of its side effects is that she has trouble with social interactions and can be anxious around new people.  But she appears to have no trouble expressing herself through her many pieces of art.

Trumpet 55cm x 75cm by Iris Grace #IrisGracePainting #IrisGrace #Iris #painting #trumpet #art

A photo posted by Iris Grace (@irisgracepainting) on

You can learn more about Iris and her paintings on her website and social media pages as linked from the site, as well as from CNN, CBS News, ABC News, Buzzfeed, and other places as listed on her website.

Monday, November 2, 2015

OrCam: Assistive Technology for the Visually Impaired

We've written about emerging technology for visually impaired people before, in the form of a new, more versatile kind of "refreshable braille" display that could one day provide tangible pictures and graphs to its users.  You can read that article here.  Today we have a new piece of assistive technology to feature: OrCam, an already-available device that can help visually-impaired users by identifying nearby objects and even reading text.

The device works by taking a photo with a small camera that attaches to a user's glasses, then describing objects in the photo to the user through a small bone-conduction speaker which also sits atop the user's glasses.  This combination camera-speaker part of the unit is connected by a wire to a larger rectangular box, which can be placed in a pocket or bag.  Unlike other solutions designed for similar purposes, OrCam is completely external and does not require any implants.

So how does OrCam know when to take a photo?  It's user-activated, meaning that the person wearing it has to make a special gesture (in this case, a pointing sign) within the camera's field of view in order to activate the software's special features.  Once the photo has been taken, OrCam will analyze and attempt to identify whatever the user was pointing at.  If the object contains text (a street sign, for example, or a label or even an entire newspaper), OrCam can even read that text aloud.  Watch this video from CNN Money to see it in action:

The man demonstrating how the device works in the video above is Amnon Shashua, who cofounded OrCam in 2010 after being inspired by his wife's aunt.  He shares the story in this TED@NYC talk, saying that his aunt-in-law had macular degeneration, a condition which causes degradation of the retina and loss of vision.  Shashua says he came up with the idea for OrCam when she talked to him just after his doctoral ceremony at MIT.  A computer scientist specializing in the artificial intelligence field, Shashua initially didn't take her request for help seriously, saying that though he was a doctor now, he wasn't the kind who helped people.  But the idea never truly left his mind, and a few years later, OrCam was born.

Elements of Shashua's artificial-intelligence background are still very apparent in some of OrCam's features—the software is not limited to identifying only those objects which it has already been programed to identify, but can also "learn" to understand new objects with some simple instructions from the user.  Given time, it can be customized to suit a user's particular environment, even identifying faces (OrCam has made this video demonstrating those features).

It's not a perfect system yet; the device has trouble in low or bright lighting, cannot read handwriting or script fonts, and currently only "speaks" in English.  But Shashua and his team are continuing to update and improve OrCam, and for many visually impaired individuals, it's already life-changing.

You can learn more about OrCam in The New York Times, ZDNet, Bloomberg News, and other places as listed on their website.

Monday, October 26, 2015


The National Down Syndrome Society is a non-profit organization that advocates for the value, acceptance, and inclusion of people with Down syndrome.  Their website has a lot of information and resources, and we highly recommend checking it out (particularly their "Preferred Language Guide" page).

This week we are featuring one of the videos from the National Down Syndrome Society's YouTube account.  "Dreams" lets people with Down syndrome share their dreams and achievements with the world.  From the video description: "Dreams features people with Down syndrome of all ages talking about their aspirations and accomplishments. This inspirational video celebrates the achievements of the Down syndrome community. (2004)"

We hope you enjoy!

Monday, October 19, 2015

Frozen Light: An Immersive, Interactive Theater Experience

The smell of a forest after rain.  The sound of thunder.  The feel of wind and raindrops.  These are just a few of the features that the audience gets to experience at UK-based theater company Frozen Light's latest show, entitled The Forest.  Frozen Light specializes in creating performances for people with what is known as PMLD, or Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities.

The theater experience can be a memorable and rewarding one, but people with different abilities cannot always experience it in the same way many others do.  In a piece published by The Guardian, co-creators of Frozen Light Amber Onat Gregory and Lucy Garland quote the UK charity Mencap:

"Any event, no matter how awesome, is unlikely to have any relevance to most people with PMLD if it takes place some distance from them."

With that in mind, Frozen Light aims to create shows than can truly involve the audience.  Small performances—shows have a maximum of six attendees with PMLD, plus one caregiver each—mean that the performers can spend time with each individual, creating a truly interactive experience.

The cast is small, too—just three performers, including co-creators Gregory and Garland and fellow actor Al Watts.  While Garland narrates, Gregory and Watts act out the story of Thea and Robin, two characters who embark on life-changing journeys into the forest.  The audience is invited along for the adventure, with the cast bringing in props for them to feel and talking or singing directly to individuals.  Inclusion is a major focus of Frozen Light's productions, yet at the same time, so is making a person not feel badly if they do not want to participate.  The primary objective is simply to create something that meets the needs of people who aren't always able to participate in the world of theatrical storytelling.

Amber Onat Gregory and Lucy Garland studied together at the University of Kent in 2006, and during their time in the Applied Performance Masters program they developed their own kind of multi-sensory theater for a group of teenagers with PMLD.  After graduation the two created their own companies, but later reconnected in 2013 to form Frozen Light.  Their first show, Tunnels, premiered last year, and tour dates (UK only) for their second show The Forest are available here.

You can learn more about The Forest and Frozen Light on their website, in The Guardian, in The Stage, in The Social Issue, and other places as listed on Frozen Light's website.

Monday, October 12, 2015

"We're more alike than different"

Just a quick post today to leave the focus on this video from the National Down Syndrome Congress.  Entitled "More Alike Than Different," it's part of the organization's More Alike Awareness Campaign, which seeks to highlight societal disparities that people with Down syndrome experience and also to dispel myths surrounding Down syndrome.  Check it out here:

Enjoy the video!

Note: a version of the video with Spanish-speaking advocates can be found here.