1999 Conference Proceedings

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Paul Blenkhorn
Technology for Disabled People Unit
Department of Computation
UMIST Manchester, UK

Chris Painter
Painter is at RNIB Condover Hall School
Condover, Near Shrewsbury, UK

Gareth Evans
Technology for Disabled People Unit
Department of Computation, UMIST Manchester, UK


For more than a decade Condover Hall School for the Blind has been using computer technology to support the educational and communicational needs of children with multiple (including visual) impairments. Recently, investigations have included the use of a stand-alone device that support both independent communication and education. The device, known as Big Ed, has been developed in collaboration with the Technology for Disabled People Unit (UMIST) and the Foundation for Communication for the Disabled.

This paper describes the way in which Big Ed operates and the results of a six-moth trial with children at Condover Hall School.

Overview of Operation - The User's Perspective

Big Ed allows a user to select from a set of messages or sounds that are recorded by the teacher. Big Ed can be used with two interfaces. One interface presents the child with a touch sensitive keyboard that is overlaid with a visual and/or tactile overlay. The overlay is divided into between 2 and 128 distinct areas, which correspond to 1 or more of the 128 distinct touch sensitive areas on the keyboard. When the child presses an area, an associated speech message or sound is played. The system is designed to work with a variety of overlay keyboards, manufactured by Concept (ref. 1), that have been widely used in the UK over the last decade. A switch interface to Big Ed is also provided. Here, depressing a switch causes a speech message or sound to be played. Between one and four switches can be connected, each switch corresponds to a unique message.

The reason for having two interfaces is primarily to allow users to progress from simple interfaces to more complex ones, as their communication skills develop and as they become familiar with the system. The intention is that users will start with a one or two switch interface moving through a four-switch interface to the overlay keyboard. As their develop it is anticipated that the number of areas on the overlay keyboard will be increased.

Overview of Operation - The Teacher's Perspective

The teacher is responsible for configuring a Big Ed system so that the messages spoken or sounds played correspond to the appropriate keypress or switch. Configuration can be achieved in two ways. One way is to record a message directly into Big Ed. The teacher selects a particular key or switch combination and speaks a message into Big Ed's in-built microphone. This works well when the number of messages is small and when the teacher needs to reconfigure the system whilst it is in use. However, this approach is not always suitable: when the number of messages is large; when the teacher wishes to use a set of messages appropriate to a particular context that have been used before; and when the teacher wishes to use sounds or messages that are not spoken by the teacher. This is achieved by connecting Big Ed to a computer system. A program, called EdWin, can be used to configure the Big Ed device. EdWin allows the teacher to create new configurations for the Big Ed system by recording messages or sounds or by selecting them from files. Configurations can be saved to disk and recalled. Thus a Big Ed device can be reprogrammed when it is necessary to provide the user with a different set of messages. In addition, EdWin also allows overlays to be designed and printed.

Usage of System

Four students have had exclusive use of their own Big Ed device for the last six months. All four have multiple impairment including visual and cognitive difficulties. Two of the students use wheelchairs. Before using Big Ed the students' communication was limited to gesture.

Big Ed has been used for basic communication. Initially all four students started with two switches, which were used to say yes and no. After two to three months, three of the students moved to using four switches. They use the four-switch system to make choices. For example, they can be asked, "What would you like to drink?" and be able to select from the four possible options.

It is expected that the three users who currently use four switches will move onto the overlay keyboard in time. We expect that one student will move onto this version of the system by the end of 1998.


When teacher wished to record messages without using EdWin, he initial versions of Big Ed required users to select a particular key or switch combination. This proved to be a problem, because it was inconvenient. Later versions of Big Ed have a dedicated record button.

A second, and rather more important, observation is that the set of messages needs to be changed during the day as the context in which the device is used changes. One example of changing the context is at lunchtime, when the student moves from a set of messages pertinent to the classroom situation to a set of messages that allow the user to, say, select items from the day's menu. With Big Ed this can be achieved by downloading a new configuration from EdWin or by the teacher recording a set of spoken messages. Both methods are time consuming and require the teacher to spend some time with the Big Ed system. This is not always convenient. A revised version of Big Ed is being developed that holds several (up to 8) sets of messages. The teacher can select the currently active set by means of a rotary switch. This means that switching between messages for different contexts can be quickly achieved, providing that EdWin has been used to program the appropriate set of messages into the Big Ed.

Concluding Remarks

The idea of talking, switch or keyboard activated communicators is certainly not new and there are a large number of devices that are commercially available. What is significant about Big Ed is that, as the user's experience and confidence with the system increases, the system can be reconfigured to their needs. The system grows with the user. Our experience so far has seen users move from two to four switches and we expect that the users will eventually move on to the overlay keyboard version with a wider range of communication options.

One significant advantage of this approach is that the school requires only one communication device. This is cost effective in terms of purchase cost and also training time for both staff and students. Big Ed is a relatively low cost device. We hope to see it as a commercial product in the UK in 1999.


(1) www.conceptkey.co.uk/640/commercial/portfolio/hardware.asp#plus current at 15/9/98

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