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Chailey Heritage Foundation

“Eye gaze technology is changing lives” Paul Crawford explains how the latest tech is helping people overcome complex disabilities at Chailey Heritage Foundation’s Life Skills Centre

Paul Crawford has one main goal in mind when it comes to his work – making himself redundant.

“It may sound strange but that’s what I’m constantly working towards,”he says. Paul is an ICT Activity Coordinator for Chailey Heritage Foundation,
a Sussex-based charity that provides education, care and transition services to children and young people with complex physical disabilities and health needs. “I want to increase our service users’ independence, knowledge and access to equipment, so they don’t need me any more,” he explains.

Key to Paul’s mission is the introduction of eye gaze technology to the charity’s modern, vibrant Life Skills Centre, where he runs regular multimedia and IT sessions. Eye gaze technology allows people with complex disabilities – these may include difficulties with speech or with controlling their hands sufficiently to use a mouse or keyboard – to operate computers through eye movements alone. With its help, they can access everything from simple games and art programmes through the same tools and programmes as a non-disabled user. “The eye gaze device is essentially a camera that sits at the bottom of your computer monitor and sends harmless infrared light into your face, which is then reflected by your cornea,” Paul explains. “The device works out where you are looking, and that is where the mouse pointer moves to. You can select an on-screen command by looking at it for longer.”

Technology can transform people’s lives in extraordinary ways. Technology that traced movements in his cheek allowed the late Professor Stephen Hawking to regain a voice. But, says Paul, young people with a wide range of abilities can all benefit from it, ranging from “very young folk who are just finding their way in the world” all the way through to “someone who probably knows more than me about computers and just needs an alternative way of using one”.

For some children and young people, he says, “we might set up the computer so when the person looks at the screen, some bells, shapes or colours might appear exactly where they are looking and then disappear when they look away. That might seem like a small thing but actually it’s the beginning of that person gaining a more distinct sense of themselves as an agent for initiating activity.

Then you have people who totally understand the computer and language but can’t access a mouse or keyboard, and they’re using the software to do pretty much everything that a non-disabled user would.”

He adds, “The device can be used as a communication aid – by accessing an on-screen grid that contains a keyboard or words or phrases – which gives people the capacity to initiate a conversation and respond to questions that require more than yes or no answers. These devices are opening a door for people to enjoy the things many of us take for granted – such as giving opinions and feedback on services, having an online voice through social media, having a sense of communal involvement and interacting with those around them.”

Paul has also seen great practical success with the use of eye gaze devices. “We had one service user in a wheelchair who was determined to be able to drive it himself, so he did some research and discovered a device that worked with an eye gaze unit to control a joystick on his wheelchair to take him where he wanted to go. It gave him so much freedom.

“We also had one guy who wanted to play a board game at Christmas with his family but struggled to control his arms to hold the pieces and put them steadily on the board. He used the eye gaze device to design a specially adapted gaming board and noughts and crosses pieces, which we then created on a 3D printer. He was then able to play a game of his own making with his family at Christmas, which was special.”

Chailey Heritage Foundation is putting the money raised in The Candis Big Give towards the purchase of 20 eye gaze devices and the appropriate computers, software and accessories needed to use the technology. Paul’s role will be to ensure that the children and young people get the most out of them. “My job is about assessing people’s individual needs and trying different things to help them access the computer in a way that’s sustainable for them. That might mean coming up with a special way of arranging the monitor or using alternative input devices such as a touch screen or simple switches that, in combination with assistive software, can help people to do the same things they would with a mouse or keyboard.”

He explains that buying more devices is important because, “if we are encouraging someone to use this to communicate with, it’s important they have access to it in all areas of their life, including in the charity’s school and residential bungalows.”

With your help, Paul is looking forward to seeing more lives changed through technology. ”It’s those moments when the technology is invisible but enables something human to happen in a way that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible, and those moments where you see someone overflowing with joy and pride, that motivate me to come to work. Things may be more difficult and there might be challenges to overcome, but it’s about showing people they can still achieve things they thought were impossible and do it independently. That is hugely important.”

  • In 2017/18 992 sessions were attended each month at the charity’s Life Skills Centre
  • The charity relies entirely on voluntary donations to fund eye gaze technology and many other pieces of specialist equipment
  • Chailey Heritage Foundation has been supporting young people with disabilities since 1903, with a mission to give them every opportunity to pursue their fullest potential

Unlocking potential with technology

TOTAL RAISED: £18,150

➸ The money raised in The Candis Big Give will go towards the purchase of 20 eye gaze devices and the appropriate software, accessories and computers needed to use the technology, in order to give better access to all the charity’s service users
in all areas – including in the Life Skills Centre, school and residential bungalows – at all times of day and in different contexts. Visit chf.org.uk to find out more.

As told to Hannah McLoughlin, photos James Clarke

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