Thursday, 19 April 2012

Free apps for disabled students

I'll start in the middle because that’s where we are in this project.

The project is a collaboration between Corporate Information and Computing Services (CiCS) and the Disability and Dyslexia Support Service (DDSS) at the University of Sheffield.

We are aiming to provide a suite of useful applications for disabled students, which are free and portable.

  • Usefulness will be decided by students who are currently testing the apps and have a questionnaire to complete.
  • Free means the apps can be given away, copied freely and are not restricted by any licensing issues.
  • Portable means that the apps can be run from a USB memory stick plugged into any Windows laptop or PC.


We (the University of Sheffield) currently have licenses for Inspiration, Texthelp Read and Write, JAWS, Zoomtext and Dolphin Easy Converter. But these licenses are for installation on university-owned computers only – we can’t give copies to our students to install on their own computers.

So freely available software could provide a useful alternative.

I’ve demonstrated a mind-mapping package called Inspiration a couple of times and people ask me if they can get a copy to use at home. Till now I’ve had to say “No” but now I can say “Why not try XMind, which is free to anyone, runs on Windows PCs, Macs,  and Linux, and is actually quite good.”

The Apps

Assistive Apps menu
 XMind – mind mapping
TheSage – dictionary and thesaurus
TypeFaster – typing tutor
Balabolka – text to speech
DSpeech – text to speech
TypeIt ReadIt – text to speech
NVDA – screen reader
Power Talk – powerpoint reader
Click-N-Type – on-screen keyboard
Fatbits – screen magnifier
Virtual Magnifying Glass – screen magnifier
RapidSet – screen colour change
ssOverlay – screen tint
Vu Bar – screen ruler
Sonar – mouse pointer location

ASuite is the application launcher that provides a customizable front-end menu system. Double-clicking on an .exe file on the USB stick starts the menu in the screenshot above. This menu sits in the system tray at the bottom right of the screen, and can be opened at any time. Clicking on a menu item starts the app, and the menu closes until needed again.

The ‘Useful web pages’ item has links to the University of Sheffield website for:

The ‘About these apps’ item links to some brief documentation for the apps, written in HTML and included on the memory stick. There are also links to the web page that each app can be downloaded from.


Twenty USB sticks have been prepared. The DDSS will distribute these to students willing to test the apps and provide feedback by completing a questionnaire.
As this is a pilot and we don’t know if the apps are genuinely useful, there is no central support for the software as yet.

Other departments

It’s possible that some of these apps may be useful to students who are supported by other departments. I have emailed the dyslexia support tutors at the English Language Teaching Centre …


I started in the middle, now I’m going back to the beginning.


For some time now I have been aware of the AccessApps project at TechDis and EduApps. AccessApps has gone through various incarnations, at one point offering a customisable selection of apps. The customisable selection option seems to have disappeared so now the only option is to download a full suite of apps. As some of these apps are incompatible with the University of Sheffield Managed Desktop I decided that AccessApps are not an option for us.


MyStudyBar is a suite of literacy apps that run from a floating toolbar. It includes an app called Lingoes, which provides dictionary and translation functions. The version of Lingoes provided with MyStudyBar is out of date and insists on being updated before it will run. I emailed EduApps about this and never received a reply so I can only assume that My Study Bar is no longer supported.

Access Apps and My Study Bar are available from:

As a result of testing both AccessApps and MyStudyBar I decided to find a way of providing a suite of apps compatible with the Managed Desktop at the University of Sheffield, in a format that is flexible and sustainable. So if an app ceases to work, I can remove it from the suite, if a new app comes along I can include it, and if a department wants a subset of the apps I could provide that.


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