Added touches for ICT

29th October 1999 at 01:00
Adapting techology is often simple, says Gerald Haigh.

A child is trying to write something on the computer. Progress is slow, painstaking, one letter at a time. Then, for about the fifth time today, he forgets to lift his finger on the key and during the time it takes him to look up and refocus on the screen, he has keyed in a long string of the same letter.

The scene is common enough, says Roger Bates, information director of Inclusive Technology Ltd, and yet it may be easily remedied, because in Windows you can simply turn off the "repeat" function.

"If I say this at a workshop five faces out of 30 will light up," he says. "They just didn't know that you could do that." It is only one example, he says, of how you should look for simple solutions before you start down more expensive roads.

He gives another example: "If you sit down in the child's seat in front of the machine, you might find that the light is reflecting in the screen. You can simply reposition yourself, but the child may not be able to do that." Other basic adjustments include changing the speed of the cursor. Beyond that, a range of devices, still simple, are capable of making a big difference to a child's work and life.

Not all children can hold their hands in mid-air over the keyboard. Even some who appear able to do it may find it is tiring and distracts them from their work. They need a keyguard - a sort of lid over the keyboard with holes punched in it. They can let their hands rest on the keyguard, and reach the keys through the holes. From a supplier such as Inclusive Technology you can buy a matched keyboard and keyguard for little more than the cost of a keyguard on its own.

A keyboard glove is a close fitting flexible cover that in adult offices is used to protect against coffee spills. Children can have features printed on them such as lower case letters or colour combinations.

Sometimes a child would do better with a different sort of keyboard - one example is Little Fingers from SEMERC, which has a built-in wrist rest and a trackball. Or a smaller keyboard may fit more easily on a tray on a wheelchair. Another answer is Intellikeys, which is a system of different keyboard overlays, including some that have tactile surfaces for visually impaired users.

For most people, making the link between moving the mouse and what happens on the screen is obvious and quickly becomes automatic. Some children - and adults - are never able to achieve the easy mental connection. For some of them, a trackball (like an upside down mouse - it doesn't move, you manipulate the ball itself) or a joystick might be the answer. Others will do better with a touch monitor, where you get the result you want by directly touching the screen.

There are two related kinds of need - one is where a child wants to use computers along with the rest of the class, but really needs a modified machine; the other is where a child needs a computer to do things such as writing that the rest of the class can do without one.

Roger Bates says: "You might find yourself providing a device that looks right, but that the child actually can't understand." Many, but by no means all, local authority special needs or information, computer and technology teams can provide help. Try every avenue.

Three sources of advice and equipment: Semerc Information Service. Granada Television, Quay Street, Manchester.

M60 9EA. Tel: 0161 827 2719. Inclusive Technology, Saddleworth Business Centre, Delph, Oldham. OL3 5DF. Tel: 01457 819790. AbilityNet, PO Box 94, Warwick. CV34 5WS. Freephone advice: 0800 269545.

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