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Symbols of hope;Software Store

Widgit is a small outfit but it has built a large reputation with its programs for people with learning difficulties.

Betty has been a long-stay patient in a psychiatric hospital for many years. At the age of 60 she attended a MENCAP conference where she met Mike and Tina Detheridge from Widgit Software. Using an overlay keyboard, Mike and Tina showed Betty how to press symbols for what she wanted to say. When her message appeared on the screen, it was printed out for her and, with some help, she could read it back. It was the first time in her long life that she had been able to read and write.

It is people like Betty who have gained most from the enterprising work of Widgit Software and the husband-and-wife team who founded it. Asked how it all started, Mike replied: "We fell into it by accident. We wrote programs on a Sinclair Spectrum computer for our own children, and friends and neighbours said 'why don't you sell them?'" They ended up producing programs for a company called Mirrorsoft and sold as many as 20,000 copies of one title. At the time, Mike was working at William Ellis School in London, where he was head of physics and, later, deputy headteacher, so in the early years much of the work of running Widgit was performed by Tina. "Then I got the job of special needs manager at NCET and Mike gave up work to run the company," she explains.

Over the years, Widgit developed a distinctive name for special needs software and, since 1989, their staff numbers have increased from one full-time person and one part-time person to six people now.

Working for the special needs market is never simple, as Mike is the first to recognise. "Some of our products are not commercial, and the amount of time and money spent on them will never be recouped."

This is where Widgit's "Robin Hood" philosophy comes in - the big-selling titles are used to finance those that serve smaller markets, such as the titles for learners with severe learning difficulties.

Widgit has always had a close link with its customers - one of its first activities was Project Christopher at Great Ormond Street Hospital, writing assessment software for a young paralysed boy. The first version of Count with Blob, which is very well-known in the special needs community, was written for a young pupil at Lakeside School, Hertfordshire, where Tina was teaching.

Writing with Symbols has been Widgit's most exciting development, and the idea was Tina's after seeing what was available at the time.

When a new version of the software was needed, the Viscount Nuffield Auxiliary Foundation funded part of the development so that versions could be written for PCs and Acorn. Writing two versions of programs is normally impossible for a small company such as Widgit, although Mike and Tina are now committed to the PC platform.

"For a long time we recognised what would happen with the Acorn," explains Tina. Adds Mike: "It was clearly easier to write in C++ for the PC than in C for the Acorn." Some companies contract out alternative versions, but Tina knows this is not the answer for Widgit products. "We understand the subtleties of switches, timing and so on. If you ask someone else to do a version, they may not be as sensitive to these issues."

Of course, Mike also recognises that resources within a school are not always sensibly divided. "It's very common in schools that the oldest computers go to the special needs department, but they need the fast multimedia machines.

This policy has made our expansion more difficult, but we've decided that everything new now is for Windows 95, and one of our programmers is working in DirectX, a programming language that will help the special needs community a great deal."

Mike is aware, too, of what he calls the treble whammy for young users of special needs software: "You need fast graphics and new technologies, you don't have much money to spend and there aren't many of you."

Being tied to one platform doesn't necessarily mean that extra support is forthcoming, however. "Microsoft could give a bit more direct help than they do to an ordinary, standard developer: maybe a real telephone conversation occasionally rather than a menu leading to a fax!" Special needs developers talk together a great deal, however. Tina said:

"We all agreed a standard for a switch box and we attempt not to compete with each other. We've been looking at things like voice recognition. It would be nice if companies like IBM could talk to us before they bring out utilities like Naturally Speaking, but they don't - we have to go out and buy it like everyone else."

ooking to the future, Mike and Tina can see the exciting potential of the National Grid for Learning, but they also have some concerns. "There is a danger in the proposals that small developers may be frozen out of the market by having to sell through a small number of powerful agents. Specialised training and support may not be available through the consortia, and requirements need to be put in place to ensure training is available in future through suitably experienced specialists."

And what do Tina and Mike see as Widgit's future? They have exciting plans for adding extra facilities to Writing with Symbols so that, during the next three years, e-mail and then website creation will become possible for symbol users themselves. "We've always had the PMLD (profound and multiple learning difficulties) community as a priority, and we have a number of ideas using multimedia facilities."

As the nation gears up for the Grid and powerful partnerships are formed, it is vital for Betty (and all those with similar needs) that innovative and expert companies like Widgit continue to serve those with special educational needs.

Widgit Software, 102 Radford Road, Leamington Spa, Warwickshire CV31 1LF Tel: 01926 885303

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