A digitally inclusive era

The Tech4Good awards celebrate apps designed for people with learning disabilities

The Tech4Good awards celebrate apps designed for people with learning disabilities

Pat O'Shea and his son, Patrick (centre) with Talita Holzer and Robbie Fryers from Way2b
Picture: Brownes Photography

The digital technology revolution has the potential to transform people’s lives, but many people with learning disabilities are being left behind, particularly with the rapid expansion of mobile technology.

For example they are often overlooked when developers come up with new apps, but there are notable exceptions and the AbilityNet Tech4Good awards, now in its eighth year, has thrown a spotlight on good practice in this area.

Cinderella area

AbilityNet head of digital inclusion Robin Christopherson said that, though the technological landscape was changing fast, learning disability remained a ‘Cinderella area.’

‘As a blind person I’m aware that we tend to be tough customers and get the lion’s share of attention when developers are coming up with new ideas for disabled people.

‘The barriers for people with learning disabilities include lack of support to use technology like smart phones. There’s also a lack of consistency with functionality across many apps.’

12 million

Of the estimated 20 million people with learning disabilities across Europe, 60% will not travel by themselves

(Source: Growing Older with an Intellectual Disability in Ireland 2011: first results from the IDS TILDA study. Trinity College, Dublin)

The Tech4Good awards aim to address these issues and this year’s ‘people’s winner’ – the Way2b app – is described as ‘an innovative take on the SatNav, combining smartphone and smartwatch features to provide extra help for users with a learning disability'.

Travel skills

Co-founder and CEO of Way2b Talita Holzer teamed up with another engineering student at Trinity College Dublin in 2014 to accept a challenge from the faculty of health sciences to come up with ‘a user-centred idea to help people with learning disabilities integrate better into society’.

‘We spoke to 100 service users, family members, teachers and social workers in Ireland and Northern Ireland. They told us the biggest problem was people with learning disabilities not able to get about because they lacked travel skills.’

‘The app has opened up opportunities for service users and given carers peace of mind'

Talita Holzer, Way2b

The initiative was accepted as a research project at Trinity in 2016 and the travel app should be available by the end of 2019. ‘Our user feedback has guided us all the way,’ says Ms Holzer.

‘The app has opened up opportunities for service users and given carers peace of mind. We believe it has huge potential.’

The app is now going to be tested at sites across the UK and senior care and support worker at Edinburgh City Council Ronnie Grocock is coordinating a pilot starting this autumn.

More than 90%

of websites fail to meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines minimum standard

(Source: AbilityNet 2018)

‘We’re trying to promote independence and Way2b is a great means of achieving that. We’ve asked for the city’s Keep Safe points to be added to the map so if people become anxious we can direct them to a place of safety and they can get help.

‘I’m excited about it, but we have to sort the red tape first around data protection and anonymising it. Colleagues have already shown an interest and it could be useful to other groups like people in the early stages of dementia.’

Another pilot site is in Coventry at Hereward College for young people with disabilities where the app will be used for individual travel training for residential students and for supporting students on internships with local employers.  

The college’s access research and development manager Paul Doyle says: ‘Up till now we’ve used one-to-one travel training, but initial trials of the Way2b app have shown it’s like a totem – our students find having something in their pocket is reassuring and lowers their anxiety levels.

‘For our interns, travel is an important part of holding down a job, so the app can really help there. And employers tell us they feel more supported as the app helps avoid that cliff edge when an intern becomes an employee.

‘We’ve been working with digital technology for some time now and we’ve found the key is ongoing support. Otherwise it’s like showing someone a gearbox, a clutch and an accelerator and telling them to drive to Manchester.’

Bridging the digital divide

In the Tech4Good awards the winner of the accessibility category was an app called TapSOS – an inclusive non-verbal way of calling the emergency services. And the digital health award went to the Be My Eyes app which enables people with a visual impairment to make video calls to a network of volunteers who will help them do anything from read a bus timetable to deal with the post.


of people with learning disabilities have never used NHS Choices

(Source: NHS England 2016)

Other projects trying to bridge ‘the digital divide’ include the NHS Widening Digital Participation Programme, with phase two, run by the Good Things Foundation, now focusing on supporting ‘the furthest first’.

Meanwhile the British Academy has funded a three year project, called the Digital Lives of People with Learning Disabilities, which is gathering people’s stories of using digital technology and looking at apps, and how software interfaces can be improved to enable greater access.

In this mobile first world, to play a full part in society a smart phone and the ability to use apps is becoming increasingly necessary. When it comes to inclusion for people with learning disabilities, access to digital technology is by no means the whole answer, but lack of access is increasingly becoming a barrier to getting the most from life and staying connected socially.

Pat O’Shea says the Way2b app has transformed his son Patrick’s life 

Picture: Brownes Photography 

‘Patrick took to it straight away and he’s already gone to places he would never have been able to go by himself before.

‘I have to plot each journey on my phone and then transfer it to Patrick’s smart watch. He clicks on the picture of the journey he wants to do and sets off. When it’s time to change direction the watch buzzes and then an arrow shows him which way to turn, or if he has to cross the road or whatever.

'Life changing'

'If there’s any problem he can push the panic button and speak to me straight away. And I can see where he is so if he goes off course I can call and put him right.

'It’s changed his life. It won’t suit people with severe disabilities – you have to be able to understand arrows, but I think it will revolutionise travel for people with mild to moderate learning disabilities.  As for us carers, it can be complicated plotting a route, but the developers are working on making it easier.

'When the trial is finished we’ll definitely want to carry on with it. When my wife and I aren’t around anymore this is going to mean Patrick will be able to keep his independence.’


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