The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Disability and the Digital Revolution

 

Cecilia Weiss is a digital producer who spent several years at CBeebies Interactive, where she was privileged to be part of the team who created the games for children with visual impairments and motor disabilities. She worked for Inclusive Technology, a leading supplier of software and hardware for people with special needs, and is currently the editor of the iChild. She has always been passionate about children's media and children’s education, volunteers in a school and is a school governor. he says the chance to really make a difference to the children she worked with when at CBeebies is still one of the proudest moments of her career.

The young boy, Amar, laughs and smiles the biggest smile as he tracks his spider with skill, speed and precision through the maze on his screen. He is absolutely enthralled by the CD game on his computer. Like so many children, Amar loves digital games and engaging brands. Unlike many children, he is confined to a wheelchair, has little control over his limbs and facial muscles, and his speech is impaired. It is difficult for those around him to know the quick brain behind his smile. But playing this computer game lets his intelligence shine through.

This is the mid-naughties and CBeebies Interactive is still riding the crest of its recent launch. But we were all too aware that some children were disenfranchised from the internet – those who could not use their hands and those who could not see. Awareness of accessibility was making great strides. But this did not include digital content for such children to enjoy the same games, and beloved brands as ‘mainstream’ children.

We began our mission by creating digital content for blind children. The result was a musical game called "Make Music with Max", controlled by the space bar and return key (as the easiest keys for fingers to feel), with a simple design using strong colours. We learnt that full blindness is rare, most with visual impairments can see shades of light and dark and vague shapes. Our ‘tester’ children with even the tiniest vision relied on the colours. One little boy told the class that he was playing all the purple instruments; his friend replied that she preferred the orange ones. Another child, with no sight at all, fingers moving like lightning over his keyboard, played the game again and again – creating umpteen versions of the same tune.

We then worked on content for children with motor disabilities, where we discovered ‘switch’ technology. This is more mainstream now; content is controlled via specific keys which children can control by tapping large buttons with their head, feet, etc. This is the same technology which allowed the world to see the workings of Steven Hawkins’ great brain.

We worked with a few ‘testers’, including Amar, to adapt a selection of CBeebies games to switch technology. One of the teachers told us how thrilled she was that her children could enjoy accessible content without their parents having to purchase CDs.

Many such CDs were created by Inclusive Technology, where I had the privilege of working a few years ago. We created “Counting Songs” - CDs for children with moderate to severe learning difficulties spanning preschool through to teenagers. The young people we worked with may have had severe learning difficulties but, like any teenager, they didn’t want to be treated as babies. Not for them the soft-edged, cuddly cuteness of CBeebies! We created an older, CBBC-style version for them, with pop tunes.

Digital technology has moved on so far in these few years. New techniques, such as touchscreen, voice-recognition and thumbprints do not differentiate between able-bodied and disabled. And the popularity of downloads makes content even more accessible. Accessing digital content has liberated so many young people with disabilities, allowing them to feel included, as well as giving them technical skills to help gain employment when the time comes.  It has enabled those with physical restrictions to realise the bright minds within themselves.

The last time I saw Amar, he was laughing and smiling the biggest smile as he guided a starship through the stars with skill, speed and precision. He was enthralled with a BBC interactive game. He felt just like everyone else. And the ever-evolving advances in digital technology will ensure he has a brighter future.

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