Thursday, 20 April 2017

Accessibility Hardware: Environmental Controls

There once was a time where if you put all the electronic items such as TV remote controls that I may need during the day in very close proximity to me that I would be all right. Now, however that is simply not the way I work. Quite a few years have passed since I lost the ability to do anything really useful with my hands except just about use computer and drive my wheelchair. In that time I have needed more creative solutions to access things in my home like the TV, light switches and the telephone. I have always used an environmental control. This is a device which can record and fire out IR signals such as the ones that come out of the television remote control and activate some light switches.

The one I have at the moment is called a Vivo+ and it is produced by a company called Possum. This one has a screen on the front which allows me with the touch of a single button the ability to scan through a list of recorded infrared signals. The version I have also connects to a pager and my telephone. With this system I can easily navigate the menus on my TV and get hold of people in an emergency. The bonus features are that I could use it as an intercom and a light switch. I no longer need to worry about moving my hand over loads of controls which is something that is impossible for me now. It is also a darnn sight better than having to tell somebody else but I want to watch. That is just not the way you want to watch adult movies. The version I have is quite an old one and I have had it for at least 8 years but the new one which is available now runs of a Samsung tablet. It works exactly the same as the old one but with this one I can send text messages, use skype, surf the Internet and all those nice things that you would expect to be able to do with any smart device.

Suffice to say I think that pretty much covers this simple but invaluable device. If you are struggling and regulating TV controls and using the home phone and all that stuff that people just take the granted. Then I would highly recommend that you try and get hold of and OT and get some sort of environmental control. I guarantee you that it will increase your independence tenfold.

Bert


Possum:
http://www.possum.co.uk/

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Audiobooks and Alexa

I can still vividly remember the last physical book I ever read. It was a compilation of all the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy books. We were on holiday at the time and I needed something to do whilst next to the swimming pool. I always find it very hard to have my brain set to idle so I've always had to have something occupying my mind. Ever since then I have struggled more and more to use my hands right up to a point where reading books for pleasure was out of the question. You could get a Kindle but I would have still been lacking control and I'd always feared it just would not be the same if I could not feel the book and smell the paper. For quite some time now I have really missed being able to read, my body might have not been able but my mind has always been a good place. My imagination could always take be anywhere and with the assistance of a well written and entertaining book there was nowhere I could not go. I felt like I lost a big piece of my life or at least the lot of the entertainment value. I did consider audiobooks but there was never really a feasible solution for me to control them as I could never handle the buttons. So with audiobooks I could not fast forward or rewind or pause. I also considered getting electronic books but I didn't really want to sit there reading a book whilst being sat in front of a computer. The whole idea was to be able to read it outside or on the go. So there I was with the only option being having an assistant read a book to me which did not really have the same effect as reading it yourself. Essentially, my disability had robbed me of something else and something which I really enjoyed. I always enjoyed reading goosebumps and then point horror, I had just started with sci-fi and the humour before I lost the ability. I resided myself to never enjoying literature again. Then one day I discovered a rather temperamental artificial intelligence called Alexa that ran on the Amazon Echo. In case you have been living in a box you would know that the echo is a voice controlled personal assistant not to be different from Siri but this one lives in a hockey puck sized disc and is controlled entirely by your voice. This thing can control your house, allow you to set a schedule, set alarms, listen to music and the radio. More importantly though it connects to the audible audiobook service which for an additional fee allows you to listen to audiobooks through the echo speaker. Because you can use your voice it means that I can select books and have all the necessary commands on the tip of my tongue instead of the tips of my fingers. Don't get me wrong this thing definitely has its flaws but when it can hear them properly and decides to do exactly what I say then it is brilliant. Normally, with other speech recognition say for instance Siri you would usually have to press a button to make it start listening to you unless of course you have it on charge. This is obviously not useful for me. The echo on the other hand has an array of microphones built into it and it can hear you over the top of the radio or audiobook just as long you don't have it set to loud. Personally I use my Alexa to wake me up with an alarm and listen to BBC radio two on the morning, then at night I use it to listen to an audiobook usually till after my carers go away and then I can turn it off after a few chapters and go to sleep. I do feel though that I should maybe point out some of the things that irk me about the system. For one you can only set an alarm to a selection of alarm sounds and you can set it to wake you up with the radio. It also for some reason keeps the defaulting to radio stations from other countries. Apart from that, it mostly works fine. I should also probably point out that I use a ventilator and my voice is not always the clearest but Alexa most of the time manages to make up for that. It is definitely a gadget I would recommend just as long as you can spare a little bit of patience which I often am unable to do. I always find now that with audiobooks there are a two things you need to consider, the first is obviously the book that you want. You definitely need to pick something that you think will entertain you and secondly it is very important to consider the reader. Some people drone on and on and on which has put me off quite a few books. However, after a bit of trial and error I have found three readers which I particularly like and those are Stephen Fry, Will Wheaton and a Guy called R.C. Bray. For me these are the best readers so far and they are integral in getting your mind to absorb the book.  In my opinion it is a very good idea to have a good listen of the sample before you commit to anything.

Bert out.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Disability and Social Media

Most of the time I hate my disability with a passion but I realise it could be a whole lot worse. This would be especially true if social media did not exist. With the condition I have it sometimes makes it very difficult to go outside and socialise. This happens more often during the winter when the slightest chill in the air can make my hands cease all conscious control. It is also a problem in rain or wind. Also, more recently I have been getting a really sore arse (I am probably due a new cushion) which has made sitting in my wheelchair stationary for a car trip out of the question. One or two days where I cannot go out is not really too much of a problem however, when those one or two days turn into a week then that can play havoc with your state of mind. I find I start getting bored, thinking too much and generally getting myself into a state. This often results in more days without socialising and the vicious cycle continues. Because of this social media and in my case more often than not Facebook is a godsend. I realise that social media can be a bit of a double-edged sword. I suppose it was originally designed as a way to connect people and bring people closer together. I think in some cases it often seems to have the opposite effect, I mean how many times have you got to see friends and most of them are completely absorbed by their mobile phone and doing the opposite of connecting with people. There is also the problem of people always being on display and in the case of some young people at school being bullied 24 hours a day seven days a week. The bullying often ending up with self-harm and in worst cases suicide. However, with all the pros and cons of social media out of the way I still think that it helps a lot if you have a disability. If with the state of my disability now I did not have access to Facebook then my life will be so much more difficult. I would not be able to easily organise events and I would not be able to meet up with my friends as often as I do now. I realise that email was a thing long before social media but unless all my friends were at their computers it was not really all that useful. Now I can do a Facebook message and it will instantly go to their mobile phone. This means I can all of a sudden decide to meet up with people if I so wished. It also allows me to communicate with people on those occasions when I cannot go out myself. The other big benefit of Facebook is that I can connect with a wide audience of people and in particular people across the world with the same disability. We can offer each other help or even just friendship. If I wanted to I can't even get them to water my crops but I don't think many of them like doing that. It is also very useful for me to share information about my disability those people which can often help them out in a pinch. This makes me feel so much less isolated with my condition than I would otherwise be. I am one of the lucky ones that have actually made it to my 30s but all of my friends within a reasonable distance are no longer with us so it is very easy for me to feel lonely. However, once again thanks to Facebook I have friends all over the UK, USA, India, Australia and Canada. I no longer feel lonely and what's more I feel like I can contribute to the Duchenne community.

I know that Facebook can often be a pain in the arse but if it helps me and others feel less isolated then I think it is a good thing to embrace. I realise that it is not perfect but technology never really is in its youth. I remember getting the first version of DragonDictate and it being absolutely dire but now I am using it without a problem to write this article. I suppose at the end of the day if you have a disability then social media is a good way to take the edge off it.

Bert out.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Accessibility Software: Natlink, Vocola and Dragonfly

This is another one of my pieces of accessibility software that isn't technically accessibility software but I find it quite useful and use it every day. The main piece of software is called Natlink and what this does is expose the API of Dragon NaturallySpeaking which in turn allows other pieces of software to have access to voice commands. Voice commands with Dragon NaturallySpeaking are in my opinion better than anything else available at the moment and that is why I prefer this. The two extra pieces of software I like are called Vocola and Dragonfly. Vocola is the easiest one to use and it is one I use the most often. I use it to add commands that write my email address, my postal address and other fiddly things. This saves me a lot of time and I have also found that I can use it in videogames. I can't use it for anything that requires quick reflexes in videogames but for the menu navigation and other action buttons like opening doors it is very useful. The next piece of software is called dragonfly and this technically isn't software but a series of scripts/macros that I use to enable me to program with my voice. With this you can make your own more advanced scripts. At the moment the ones I use to program allow me to switch between different languages and it also gives me a message telling me what language I am using. It also has the naming conventions so I can write things like this camelCase really quickly. If you are not programming then you don't really have to worry about dragonfly but because of what you can achieve in Vocola I would recommend you have a go of that. You will need to be using Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12, 13 or 14. I prepared a video explaining how you install it. There are also links on video for where you can download all the bits. Enjoy.


Links:

Python 2.7.13: https://www.python.org/

Friday, 10 March 2017

Accessibility Software: Cheat Engine

Whilst this is definitely not "accessibility software" by any stretch of the imagination.It is still something that I use quite often. I know it is designed for cheating but sometimes I have to use it in order to counter some of my physical limitations. The only thing I really use this for is the speed hack feature. If after I have got specialist hardware and used all my other adaptations I still cannot get away with playing a certain game then I will use the speed hack to slow it down to give myself more time to react. Sometimes I might slow down a fighting game or a game with lots of QuickTime events. A good example of this is with any of the tell-tale games where once you have read the dialogue you have mere seconds to respond. One of my favourite type of games is the hidden object game such as those available from big fish games. In most cases you have all the time in the world to figure out what to do however in Ravenhearst 2 there is a stage where you have to get so many points in a game of whack a mole. It would have been impossible for me to do this had I not been able to slow that bit down.

I would like to point out that I have my own set of conditions or rules for when I allow myself to use cheats. The most important being that I do not use it in multiplayer games or any games where I might be seen to have an advantage. Even though that is a load of bollocks, I mean no matter how much advantage I try and give myself there is no way I can have any more advantage than somebody who has a working pair of arms and hands. I also will not use this software on anything where I could achieve a massive high score. Some people work really hard to get a high score so I would not really want to take that away from them. Besides, the only thing I really want to achieve is finishing a game for my own personal enjoyment. I still manage quite nicely and quite a few multiplayer games but for those rather expensive single player experiences I will often use cheat engine to finish the game rather than burn £50.

You can download Cheat Engine 6.6 here:
https://github.com/cheat-engine/cheat-engine

Friday, 3 March 2017

Accessibility Software: GlovePIE

This is one of my favourite pieces of accessibility software. Granted it is technically not designed to be accessibility software but I use it in most games to make them easier for me to play. PIE stands for Programmable Input Emulator and the glove is because it was originally designed to be used with virtual reality gloves.

GlovePIE can be used to emulate a variety of different input devices including keyboards, mice, joysticks and gamepads. It can even be used to add rudimentary voice commands to some games.  You can also use it to make macro type buttons for complicated keypresses for games such as Mortal Kombat  I like to use it because it allows me to easily remap keys. Lots of times when I am playing a game and the right mouse button does nothing I tend to remap it to a function on the game. This is really useful when you are playing a game that does not have customisable controls built in.

Most of the time when I am playing a game I will use GlovePIE for its ability to allow me to remap keys although I have been known to make a few macro functions aswell.  When I first started experimenting with speech recognition I liked to use this program to add voice commands to my game. I would mainly use the voice commands to and perform actions that don't really require quick reflexes, such as weapon selection, inventory navigation and action buttons like "open door". This worked well for a while and only when you had few voice commands but once you add too many this system started to get confused. It also required windows speech recognition and this is one of the reasons why in a previous post I recommended that you train that as well just in case. I have since discovered better ways to add voice recognition but regardless GlovePIE is a very good tool to add a bit of much-needed accessibility to some games. Now it is probably more useful for older games seeing as a lot of new games already have customisable configurations. It still has its use for macros though in all games where you might need them. I would highly recommend you give this a go before you decide to splash out on more expensive stuff.

You can download GlovePIE from this link:
https://glovepie.en.softonic.com/

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Dragon Naturally Speaking 13

For me speech recognition is a godsend. It has allowed me to keep playing games as best I can and it has even enabled me to write this blog. There are two main competitors for speech recognition, Windows speech recognition and nuance. My weapon of choice is Dragon NaturallySpeaking Premium 13. At the time of writing this you can now get version 15. However, in my case I much prefer 13 or 14. This is because for my needs 13 and 14 are the most versatile, but we will get to that later. I like Dragon because it is really good at picking my voice over the sound of my ventilator which is something for some reason windows speech recognition just could not do. The speech recognition provided by Windows still has some uses which we will also get to in later posts. Suffice to say that most of the third-party software that uses speech recognition usually does it through the windows speech recognition engine. This includes voice attack and glovepie. With the version of Dragon I have you can easily make basic text macros. These can be used to type a lot of text with just one command. I have a command called My Email Address which simply writes down my full email address. I also have ones for my phone number, lines of my address, a full address and a few commands that I used to use in the World of Warcraft chat window. The main reason I find version 13 and 14 the most versatile is because you can use natlink, vocola and dragonfly. At the moment it does not seem to be working properly with the new version of Dragon dictate. Hopefully, in the future it will but for now I will recommend the versions before 15. This is only meant to be a short post suggesting that if you are considering speech recognition for an accessibility need then you should really go with DragonDictate 13/14 but that you should also train windows speech recognition just in case.