Member Blog: Sal McKeown, Freelance Journalist, and Author of "The Family Guide to Dyslexia".

A day that was all about heroes

Dinosaurs, comic book heroes and neurodiversity seemed to be the motifs running through the ATEC conference in Manchester on November 23rd.

Delegates started the day with bacon butties, vegetarian sausages or vegan options at the ATEC free breakfast. Early birds had a chance to network, visit the stands and talk to exhibitors before the mad rush started. I took the time to check out anything and everything for dyslexia. There was plenty to see: mind mapping from Inspiration and Matchware; Spellex -software with specialist vocabularies that integrates into Dragon from Nuance; Essay writer; Orcam, a headset that takes the stress out of reading at work; Claro and Scanning Pens for exam accessibility while TextHelp was showing Equati0, a great tool for STEM subjects, a new product for students who struggle with formulae.

I caught up with Vision Aid which has handheld portables right through to Braille and text to speech system; Dolphin with their Easy Reader that offers access to online libraries and Gordon Morris who put Phonak into Glastonbury – the council, not the festival. Brain in Hand were also exhibiting; providing tips on reducing anxiety and sharing case studies.

The day was designed to make sure that delegates and exhibitors had plenty of chances to meet up. Medincle is a British medical spellchecker and dictation software that works with Office, Pages and Dragon dictation software. It was their first ATEC and they were delighted with the knowledge of visitors to their stand and the level of discussions they had. You definitely get a better class of delegate at ATEC.

The keynote was delivered by Sean Gilroy and Leena Haque from the BBC’s Cognitive Design team in Salford. Leena is Lead for BBC CAPE (Creating A Positive Environment) Project and her theme was neurodiversity.

A high flier because of, and not despite her autism, Leena has a 2:1 BA degree from Durham University, an MSc degree from LSE and had a career in the finance sector before working at the BBC.  However, like many people with disabilities and neurodiversity, she has struggled over the years to find employment that matches her considerable abilities.

She explained that she sees in pictures which is a great advantage in arts and the media but she also suffers from face blindness so does not recognise people. That can be a disadvantage in the world of work but it is no longer insurmountable, thanks to Seeing AI. Designed for the low vision community, this app, free from the AppStore, will recognise people and describe appearance and emotions. It also acts as a barcode scanner, reads text, describes pictures so it is a useful 'real world' companion. Unfortunately, Leena's face blindness also extends to cats so despite her best efforts a new feline lodger has moved into her kitchen.

Leena has a passion for dinosaurs and comic book characters (her twitter handle is @L1L_Hulk) and referred to both as she talked about neurodiversity. She said: "Different perspectives plus creativity equals innovation" and called on employers to take steps to make the workplace more welcoming to those with neurodiversity, to create 'a fellowship' so they could get on, do what they do best and use their special talents. 

Delegates warmed to her theme. The winning tweet of the day, from @knitteronwheels said ' Who knew that Godzilla was neurodiverse? Brilliant keynote by @L1L_Hulk & @S67Sean at #ATEConference'.

However, the day was not all good news. Only 33 percent of students take up assistive technology training. This may explain why there is so much equipment paid for by the DSA that is never used. This year, 31,500 students were recommended for assistive technology training but only 10,600 took it up.  ATEC brought together suppliers, assessors and training organisations such as Wyvern Assistive and Team FindMyFlow and Neurotalent who are experts in helping users build to their strengths and get the best out of assistive technology. This is theme which I think will need more of a focus at future events.

I went to some excellent seminars. On the software side, Iansyst provided a round-up of dyslexia products and Matchware reprised the superhero theme with a mind map based on Marvel Comic characters. I also attended a session from APPGAT - The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Assistive Technology - which reminded us that for all the advances in assistive technology, only 48% of disabled people are in paid employment of 16 hours per week or more, compared to 80% of the non-disabled community.

I finished the day with a session run by Paul Doyle of Hereward College in Coventry talking about their new accreditation Supporting Users of Assistive Technology  aimed at teachers, teaching assistants, librarians, nursing staff, carers and local authority staff as well as assistive technology users. "The assistive technology practitioner is not a defined role in the U.K,' he said. "There is no regulatory framework. Instead these hidden heroes take on the challenge of supporting students." I like the idea that the 'hidden heroes' of today will become the superheroes of tomorrow.

See you ATEC HEADsUp - Advancing inclusive policies and practices for disabled people within Further and Higher Education: Thursday, 18th January 2018 at St Mary’s Conference Centre, Bramall Lane, Sheffield, S2 4QZ

Sal McKeown freelance journalist – and author of The Family Guide to Dyslexia


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