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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 23 July 2018

UAE hackathon will mean people with disabilities can have assistive technology catered to their needs

Visitors to interact with students using assistive devices for a glimpse of how this would work in offices, shops

Isphana Al Khatib, director of Al Noor Training Center for Persons with Disabilities, speaks at the 2016 Future Accessibility Summit in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National
Isphana Al Khatib, director of Al Noor Training Center for Persons with Disabilities, speaks at the 2016 Future Accessibility Summit in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National

One of the biggest challenges faced by people with disabilities is integration and visibility. A lack of access and technology to help people be more independent means they are often unable to perform daily tasks in public.

Al Noor centre is inviting residents to visit a supermarket and restaurant set-up at the end of the month where students will disabilities will use speech and eye tracking technology to help them work and communicate with customers.

The benefits of the set-up are two-fold as it allows both the students to become comfortable with the technology and using it to deal with others and it normalises and makes people more comfortable with dealing with those using assistive technology.

The region’s first hackathon for assistive technology will also be held to group companies and students with people with disabilities and their families to develop the technology they need at an affordable price.

Families have been urged to attend and share one challenge they face when caring for children or adults with special needs so that companies may come up with solutions.

These could be a device to help a mother in a wheelchair cradle her baby since her muscles are too weak or a spoon that easily allows a teenager to eat independently without a carer’s assistance, said Isphana Al Khatib, director of the Al Noor Training Centre.

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“Although assistive technology has a huge role to play in rehabilitation of people with disabilities we felt its role is not understood enough both by people who create the technology and people who require it,” she said.

“People who create the technology need to gear it towards the actual needs of people with disabilities. The focus will be on creating solutions. So we are looking for real people with real problems. They will not all be from Al Noor but can be from anywhere. With these real cases, hopefully a prototype is developed that will eventually help a lot of people.”

Assistive technology is a term for a wide-range of devices that provide support, a means of communication and mobility. It ranges from low to high tech: from a pencil grip and adaptive utensils to robotics and eye gaze technology where a user can guide a cursor by looking at a screen.

The teams will be given two days to come up with solutions after they meet with families and people with disabilities to gain a better understanding of equipment that is not readily available.

“It could be very simple like a feeder for a 15-year-old who can’t eat by himself. Yes, there are easy grip spoons but what if he can’t hold a spoon and somebody has to feed him all the time. These are the solutions we are looking for. We want to ensure we don’t forget the human element,” Ms Al Khatib said.

The non-profit organisation has been providing care to the special needs community for more than 35 years and has partnered with Microsoft for the Hackathon project.

“Hackathon’s are a great vehicle for solving problems in a new way. This is the first time in the region that a hackathon focused on special needs has been undertaken. The UAE, through its vision, demonstrates how critical it is for a city to be accessible to all. This hackathon is just one small way of realizing this vision,” said Tanya Rudd, philanthropies lead, Microsoft Gulf.

“In hackathons around the world there is a fascination with the latest trends in technology, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, natural language processing. Similarly, this initiative takes inspiration and is aligned to the leadership’s vision for inclusion, participation and access for people of different abilities through latest technology solutions,” said Ms Rudd.

The aim is to focus on finding real, workable answers to practical problems encountered.

“The whole thing is to provoke people to think, to change perceptions. Children think robotics is fun so in a robotics workshop maybe they will think of creating something that could be helpful for our children,” Ms Al Khatib said.

To raise awareness, the centre will re-create a variety of experiences for visitors to interact with students.

“If somebody at the cash desk at a cafe isn’t able to speak and is using a speech-generating device, then that is how you will interact and order a coffee,” she said.

“We want to go one step further to make people understand that these things can work. The event will be open to the community so they come and meet the children.”

Families, students and companies can get involved by contacting the Al Noor Training Centre ahead of the hackathon scheduled on October 29-30. The Assistive TechX exhibition, workshops and conference will run from November 1-3.