GATHER: Discovering Assistive Technology Together in 2024

13 Jun 2024
In May, AHEAD - a non-profit working to create inclusive environments in education and employment for people with disabilities - organised a 3-day event about assistive technology, in partnership with the National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) and AONTAS.

Writing by Ruby Cooney, Education Projects Officer 

AHEAD, in partnership with the National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) along with AONTAS organised an informative 3 day event all about assistive technology (AT).  

Over the three days, the event was filled with sessions joined by AT experts and learners. I facilitated a session with an adult learner on her experience of using assistive technology.  

What is Assistive Technology?  

Assistive Technology are practical tools that help create an inclusive environment promoting participation particularly in people with a disability. World Health Organisation describes the primary purpose of assistive technology as being to maintain or improve a person’s functioning and independence. Examples that we might be more familiar with include eyeglasses, hearing aids and wheelchairs. Other examples that may not be as obvious are spellcheck, online calendars and closed captions.  

Ailish's learner story  

At the event, I spoke with adult learner Ailish Dunne about her experience of using assistive technology. Ailish is an adult learner at Laois and Offaly Education and Training Board (LOETB) and has attended learning ambassador training with AONTAS. She also recently represented adult learners at the "Cost of Education" event organised by the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. She is currently a student at Mountmellick Further Education and Training Centre.  

Ailish attended education as a sighted person until the age of 19 when she suffered a virus in the brain called vasculitis resulting in her losing her vision.

Although this put a pause on her education, Ailish then pursued another interest she had - sports. Ailish began training in shotput and discus throwing which led to being recruited to participate in the Paralympics in the European and World Championships.  

Tools people can use

Ailish describes the technology that is available to her now compared to 20 years ago as phenomenal. She explains that it would not be possible to live independently if she did not have access to technology such as her iPhone. Ailish uses her phone to do everyday tasks such as use cooking appliances, and her home security.   

Often devices that help disabled people can be expensive and software can use lots of memory on your device but Ailish explains that now iPhone has this already pre-installed ready for the user.

Luckily, there are many AT tools to choose from, but it can be difficult finding one that works for you. Ailish highlighted a podcast from Vision Ireland that she finds useful when deciding what technology to spend her time and money on called ‘Talking Technology’ 

While many people are concerned about the rapid development of artificial intelligence, it is so important to people like Ailish.

A tool recommended by Ailish is ‘Seeing AI’, an app for visually impaired people that narrates the world around you. Ailish describes this app as ‘nearly like having eyesight’. This app is designed to read to users’ short descriptive snippets of what your camera is seeing.

Another app recommended by Ailish is ‘Be My Eyes’. This app connects blind and visually impaired people with sighted volunteers across the world to help them through video call.   

Ailish is currently studying Level 3 Computers in Mountmellick Further Education Training Centre, part of the LOETB. She uses a reader called NonVisual Desktop Access which is an open source available on Microsoft Windows. Ailish admits she can become frustrated with how difficult it can be to navigate but once it is figured out describes it as like ‘winning a medal’.

Ailish is hoping to progress to university but wants to increase her computer literacy first.  AHEAD has listed learner supports available for blind or partially sighted people on their website.  

Our research has shown that many adult learners faces issues with navigating technology (National FET Learner Forum Report 2022-2023).

Learners who have experienced frustration with apps such as Microsoft Teams may not be using or are not aware of AT tools that can be of great benefit to them.  

AHEAD has created ‘AT Hive’ an amazing and easy to use resource for people to find the best AT tool that suits their needs. The AT Hive categorises different tools that can suit your needs letting you know about free versions.

If you are unsure about what AT tool might suit you, you can answer 3 questions and it will suggest tools that could work for you. Another fun aspect of this resource is if you have discovered a great AT tool that you feel would benefit other people, you can submit it to the AT Hive! 

If you would like to listen to my interview with Ailish, please click here.  

All recordings of the event sessions can be accessed here 

For more information, contact Ruby