A Summer of Accessibility

Monday, December 6, 2010

Tekla (formerly mEADL) is a collection of open hardware and open source applications that may be used to enable access to mobile devices for people with motor impairments. The idea for Tekla was the brainchild of the mobile accessibility team at the Inclusive Design Institute (IDI), which became a new mentoring organization for Google Summer of Code in 2010. Our goal has been to bridge some of the gaps currently preventing people with disabilities from using mobile devices.

Google Summer of Code student Eric Wan is a developer who employs accessibility switch access in his daily life. Having him on our team was incredibly valuable because he has a personal understanding of the practical issues involved in creating an accessibility solution. Google Summer of Code provided the means for Eric to "scratch his own itch" and now many more switch users may potentially benefit as the IDI is working with Komodo OpenLab to commercialize the technology.

The video above shows Eric using the “sip and puff” switches attached to his wheelchair to send commands to his Android handset in order to start the phone's SMS application and compose a text message - all without ever touching the phone!

How it works:
Switch events from Eric's wheelchair are sent to the phone via the Tekla shield, a bluetooth interface based on the Arduino open-hardware platform. Once on the phone, these switch events are used to navigate an on-screen keyboard provided by the Tekla open-source app, which is available for free from the Android market.

There is still some accessibility work to do on Android devices. For example, menus that appear when pressing the device MENU key and some pop-up windows will block the on-screen keyboard, sometimes locking switch users out of the phone. Also, some third-party application developers will disable access features in their interfaces, making their apps unusable with the Tekla shield. For example, Eric can sign in to Skype, but he cannot use the "call" button or the dialer due to limitations of the user interface. Luckily though, most functions and apps are accessible because developers generally have to go out of their way to make their apps inaccessible.

Eric is an engineering grad student at the University of Toronto, and he helped develop Tekla with me (his mentor) and Zongyi Yang, another U of T student. In addition to funding from the 2010 Google Summer of Code program, development on Tekla has been funded by the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation. Tekla is also being developed as part of the AEGIS Project.

By Jorge Silva, Google Summer of Code Mentor for Inclusive Design Institute