TechAbility Conference 2021

Building on the success of last year’s conference, we are back again. This time, the focus will be on the learners and service users that make our colleges, schools and centres so great.

The conference takes place online on Wednesday 10 November from 9.15am-3.45pm.

Please visit the event page on the Natspec website for further details about how to book your place for this event.

You can expect to hear first-hand experience of assistive technology use, alongside a real “back to basics” focus on how it can overcome barriers. You will leave with a greater focus and understanding, led by the best practitioners in the field and carefully curated to keep sessions lively and relevant. There will be something for everyone – specialist, mainstream or vocational.

After last year’s highly successful online delivery, the TechAbility conference will again take place virtually. And, in a repeat of last year’s offer, we are happy to confirm that organisations will only pay one fee for multiple delegates!

At the 2020 TechAbility conference:

  • 96% of delegates said they were “Very Likely” or “Likely” to apply learning from the conference in their work.
  • 88% rated the conference as “Excellent” or “Very Good”

On this page

  1. Keynote: Meaningful tools for control and choice
  2. Workshops and Presentations
  3. Schedule
  4. Discussion Sessions
  5. Cost
  6. Presenters


Book your place now!


Keynote: Meaningful tools for control and choice

Julie Eshleman, Leonard Cheshire and PhD candidate at Stirling University.

With this year’s conference focussing on learners and service users, we are delighted to welcome Julie Eshleman as our keynote speaker. Julie is currently researching what disabled people want from their technology. She is proposing a framework of principles that describe the role of technology for disabled people in care settings, to help organisations facilitate and support meaningful technology use. With a focus on technology as a tool for independence and autonomy, and in asking what disabled people want from it, Julie’s session will be interactive, inviting attendees to share their thoughts on the proposed framework.

The voices of learners and service users are critical to Julie’s research, so please encourage all who may have an opinion on what they want from technology to attend this session and obviously they are welcome for the whole conference. You can start the conversation right now by contributing to the Jamboard on Meaningful Tools for Control and Choice.

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Workshops and Presentations

How disabled people and carers/PAs use virtual assistants

Saul Albert, Loughborough University

An evidence-based report on how disabled people and carers/personal assistants can use virtual assistants like Google Home and Amazon Echo to manage their daily care routines.

This pilot project explores how disabled people adapt consumer voice technologies to enhance their personal independence, and the wider opportunities and risks that AI-based voice technologies may present for future social care services.

Conducting user research remotely

Lilian Soon and students, University of York

The University of York has been running user research with disabled students to understand how the systems and processes are helping or hindering the student journey. The research has lasted several months with many teams across the university involved with the students. This presentation highlights:

  • Some unexpected benefits of conducting user research online
  • What we didn’t know that we didn’t know
  • How doing user research can show up the disability gaps
  • What we’re doing with what we have learned
  • How the students have responded to the co-design approach.

The difference the right AT can make

Sarah Blee and Julie Smith, Sense

Several of the learners at Sense’s Knapwell Centre have used AT to make a real difference to their learning and recreation time. Thomas is keen to share the benefits of having a Magnilink reader. David uses a head switch and has developed his communication skills tremendously using his device to access email and now WhatsApp. Jack and Harry have used Grid software to help them achieve. Sarah and Julie share these examples from the Knapwell Centre that really demonstrate the positive effect successful technology use has on learning and progress.

The right technology supporting the learning journey, one learner’s experience

Natalie Forsythe and Becky Hodgson, Beaumont College

How identifying the right Assistive Technology working within a multidisciplinary team has had a positive impact on a learner’s independence and facilitated beneficial learning.  This presentation will include how a multi-disciplinary team identified that the technology the learner was using wasn’t suitable for her needs and she was getting very fatigued using it.

It will explain with support from video footage, how the team came to this conclusion, how it had a positive impact on the learner’s learning, literacy skills and access to environmental controls to promote her independence.

Robot masterclass

Jeremy Hoare, Bridge College and Dr Nigel Newbutt, University of the West of England

Two independent projects looking at how learners can interact with robots, brought together in one masterclass! The University of the West of England has been using the Pepper robot to support autistic young people manage their emotions and well-being. Bridge College have been exploring how the QT Robot can support their learners with interaction and to support work programmes.

Developing your own apps

Helen Edwards, Derwen College and Neil Bevan, Starfish Apps

Derwen College and Starfish have collaborated to produce a number of apps for learners, most notably the award-winning Premier Inn app which supports learners in developing employability skills.

This presentation will discuss how learners at Derwen influenced the development of the apps and how the partnership enabled innovative support and practice.

Jacdac – a modular system for prototyping AT solutions

James Devine, Microsoft

Jacdac is a series of low cost controllers which can be linked together to prototype assistive technology solutions. James will outline how Jacdac works along with how it can be used to make AT solutions.

My Voiceitt Story

Sean Connolly, Karten Network

This presentation will feature people sharing their experiences using the Voiceitt app. Voiceitt enables people with non-standard speech to communicate and control smart home voice recognition technology using their own voices.


AT Shorts

Using Flex Sensors as an assistive technology

Matt Oppenheim, Lancaster University

The Flex is a highly sensitive sensor which can be adapted for a range of AT solutions. Matt will show how it can be used as a simple switch and outline alternative applications. 

AT training from the Ace Centre

Sara Dale, Ace Centre

The Ace Centre provides a range of training opportunities for practitioners and professionals who are supporting people with physical disabilities and complex communication needs to use Assistive Technology. Opportunities for professional development will be outlined.

The EduAT Masters course

Rohan Slaughter, Dundee University

Dundee University has developed a Masters in Educational Assistive Technology. Currently the only taught Masters course in AT in the UK. Details of the course along with who can apply will be given in this AT Short. 

Creating connections

Veronica Mulenga, SeeAbility

People with learning disabilities, autism and sight loss are particularly vulnerable to loneliness as they have fewer chances to socialise and take part in leisure activities. SeeAbility have been in a unique place with their delivery partners to train and support people in their digital journeys so they can reach those most in need around the country.

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Time Session
09:15 – 09:30 Delegate login, audio and video check
09:30 – 09:45 Introduction to the day including practical arrangements, Fil McIntyre
09:50 – 10:20 Breakout Room 1: How disabled people and carers/PAs use virtual assistants. Saul Albert, Loughborough University

Breakout Room 2: The difference the right AT can make. Julie Smith, Michelle Wilson and AT users, Sense College

10:20 – 10:25 Neil Beck introduces the TechAbility Champions
10:30 – 11:00 Breakout Room 1: Developing bespoke apps – a collaboration between a college and company. Derwen College and Starfish

Breakout Room 2: Robot master class – Jeremy Hoare, Bridge College and Nigel Newbutt, University of the West of England

11:00 – 11:20 Break
11:25 – 11:40 Breakout Room 1: Jac Dac – a modular system for prototyping AT solutions. James Devine, Microsoft.

Breakout Room 2: AT Shorts: Training from the Ace Centre, Training from Dundee University and Creating Connections, SeeAbility

Breakout Room 3: Exhibition (Exhibitors TBC)

Breakout Room 4: Exhibition (Exhibitors TBC)

11:45 – 12:00 Breakout Room 1: AT Shorts: Using the Flex sensor as an AT, Matt Oppenheim + TBC + TBC

Breakout Room 2: My VoiceItt Story. Sean Connolly, Karten Network

Breakout Room 3: Exhibition (Exhibitors TBC)

Breakout Room 4: Exhibition (Exhibitors TBC)

12:00 – 12:55 Discussion: Themed discussion featuring presenters from morning breakout sessions and AT Shorts presenters. Delegates can ask more in-depth questions and share their own experience.
12:55 – 13:55 Lunch & Exhibition
13:55 – 14:00 TechAbility Consultations – supporting your AT delivery with expert advice.
14:00 – 14:45 Keynote Speaker: Julie Eshleman. What do disabled people want from technology?
14:50 – 15:20 Breakout Room 1: The right technology supporting the learning journey, one learner’s experience. Natalie Forsythe and Becky Hodgson, Beaumont College.

Breakout Room 2: Conducting user research remotely. Lilian Soon and AT users, University of York.

15:20 – 15:55 Discussion: Themed discussion featuring keynote presenter and presenters from afternoon sessions. Delegates can ask more in-depth questions and share their own experience.
15:55 – 16:00 Closing remarks

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Discussion Sessions

Also popular at last year’s conference, the discussion sessions aim to bring a little bit of that lunchtime networking to a virtual conference. This is your chance to ask further questions of the workshop presenters, delve into any burning questions you might have and share your own experiences.


The fee below is for your whole organisation! We therefore encourage multiple colleagues to attend this event where relevant. Colleagues will also be able to dip into sessions throughout the day as required.

All attendees do need to register separately as all join links are personalised and unique. Multiple bookings from your organisation will not incur multiple charges.

  • £80 +vat for full Natspec member / Karten organisations
  • £100 +vat for Natspec Transform member organisations
  • £120 +vat for non-member organisations


Book your place now!

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Julie Eshleman

Julie EshlemannJulie Eshleman has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education and behaviour analysis, with a postgraduate certificate in organisational business psychology. She is currently undergoing her PhD in Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Stirling, with a research focus on how disabled people use technology to build the lives they want, and what care support organisations need to know to be sure that everyone knows about and can get the tools they may want to build their lives. Julie is autistic and has worked as a teacher, a teacher trainer, a clinical behaviour analyst, and an organisational behaviour consultant in education and third sector organisations for over 15 years. As part of the Assistive Technology team at Leonard Cheshire, a pan-disability charity, her current focus is on incorporating technology in a meaningful way for disabled people, care organisations, and care workers.

Saul Albert

Saul AlbertSaul is a lecturer in social science (social psychology) in Communication and Media at Loughborough University.

His research explores the technology of social interaction at two ends of the spectrum of formalization. At one end, his work on conversational AI asks which features and mechanisms of human social action can be represented and modelled computationally. At the other, he studies how people make aesthetic judgements and interact while dealing with underdetermined cultural objects and situations. This program spans multiple, often incompatible disciplines, so his work builds methodological interfaces between them.

Saul’s postdoc (2017-2019) between the psychology and computer science departments at the Human Interaction Lab at Tufts University involved exploring the methodological fusion of conversation analysis and experimental psychology, building software tools and protocols for generating large scale interactional data, and developing open-science methods for improving interaction research in psychology.

Saul’s PhD (2017) in the Cognitive Science Research Group in the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science at Queen Mary University of London explored how people do aesthetic evaluations in interaction, funded by a grant from the EPSRC’s Media and Arts Technology Doctoral Training Centre.

Saul’s background is in the arts, where he worked in participatory culture, science, and technology, co-founding The People Speak Network in 2006 to host open-ended conversations in public spaces.

Lilian Soon

Lilian SoonLilian is an educational adviser at the University of York, who is passionate about staff development and the ‘learning’ in technology-enhanced learning. She has over 28 years’ experience as a teacher, trainer, e-learning manager and consultant in vocational education, higher education and the private sector. She has worked on several UK and European teaching and learning projects, staff development programmes and inclusive learning projects and continues to support colleagues across the UK through the Future Teacher 3.0 project. Lilian has delivered numerous workshops and presentations at regional, national and online conferences and offers an active and entertaining insight into the simple uses of technology to stimulate active learning. Her current research interests include building capacities for active learning, the experience of disabled staff and students and appreciative inquiry as a model for staff development.  You can find her on Twitter as @xlearn and @uoy_tel.

Dr Nigel Newbutt

Nigel NewbuttDr Newbutt is a researcher in the Department of Education at UWE, Bristol.  His work has involved the design, development and application of digital technologies for, and with, autistic groups.  His recent research has involved the evaluation of virtual reality head-mounted displays in educational settings for young people with autism.  This has involved the inclusion of autistic children and their teachers in both the research and evaluation of tools.  Coupled with usability evaluations and developing ethical and safety protocols, his work has helped to provide unique insights to the views of autistic people and their use of HMD-based VR. Most recently, his work has expanded and included social robots in special needs schools with a view to designing the future of robots with autistic young people.

Helen Edwards

Helen EdwardsHelen has worked at Derwen College for 11 years, following 10 years working in the world of marketing.  During her time at Derwen College she has worked in varied roles including as a Learning Support Assistant; ICT Functional Skills lead; technology support; and as a Business Administration teacher.  She has also worked on projects including Derwen College fundraising events; VirtuAssist (a European funded project to assess the use of Google Glass in training people with SEND); regional and national Inclusive Skills competitions; and coordinating app production for the Local Enterprise Partnership funded project. She is also a Makaton local tutor. Her current role at Derwen is split between the marketing team and the IT team where she is currently working on an MIS project as well as continuing her app work with Neil Bevan of Starfish Labs.

Jeremy Hoare

Jeremy HoareJeremy is an Assistive Technologist at Bridge College, an SEN College for students aged 16-25 with a range of learning and physical disabilities in Openshaw Manchester.

Jeremy has worked in his role for 4 Years and uses assistive technology ranging from switches, High Tech AAC, Ensemble software, smart technology, robots and virtual reality to enable the students in college and in their lives outside of college.

Jeremy is passionate about teaching new skills and finding innovative ways that technology can bridge gaps to broaden the potential opportunities for his students.

Natalie Forsythe

Natalie ForsytheNatalie is the Lead Assistive Technologist at Beaumont College.

Natalie has worked at Beaumont College for 11 years, she became a trainee Assistive Technologist in January 2016.  Prior to this Natalie had worked as a keyworker across the residential and day provision. Natalie developed an interest in AT and AAC whilst supporting her Key student through the assessment process and delving into prevalent technologies to provide support in access and communication.

Natalie then developed her skills and knowledge before becoming Lead Assistive Technologist in 2021.

Natalie is passionate about delivering assistive technology solutions to individuals with multiple and profound disabilities to support communication, promote independence and access to learning.

Rebecca (Becky) Hodgson

Becky HodgsonBecky is the Access Through Partnerships Pathway Coordinator at Beaumont College. She has worked at the college for 14 years, starting her journey at Beaumont as a Transition Coordinator before completing her teacher training in 2010. Through her work at the college she has developed a keen interest in AAC, AT, self-advocacy and relationships. She has developed her skills supporting learners to increase their confidence and competence using AAC and AT by delivering a variety of subjects including City and Guilds AAC Accreditation and further developing the Access Through Partnerships Pathway to improve access to learning for individuals with profound and multiple learning disabilities.

Becky is passionate about delivering quality of life outcomes for learners and has worked in partnership with Lancaster University and the NHS to ensure individuals with PMLD are involved in the development and delivery of training for student social workers and health care professionals. This work has directly fed into the regional quality improvement plan for young people with PMLD accessing NHS services.

James Devine

James DevineJames is a researcher at Microsoft Research, Cambridge. He specialises in physical computing which is all about empowering non-technical people to build their own interactive electronic devices that can sense and respond to the real world.

In his past, James co-wrote the micro:bit runtime, a lightweight operating system that enables the functionality of a device called the BBC micro:bit. In 2015, one micro:bit was given to every Year 7 child in the U.K. to help ignite a passion for computer science. Now over 5 million micro:bits are in use around the world. The runtime supports multiple programming environments including MicroPython, and a simple visual programming environment called Microsoft MakeCode.

Recently he has become interested in empowering more people to build interactive electronic devices to help people with disabilities. Such accessibility devices need to be low-cost and highly customised – two attributes that do not go hand in hand. By leveraging a new technology called Jacdac, he hopes that more people around the world can interact with the digital world in a way that suits them.

Sean Connolly

Sean ConnollySean is a Technologist on the Nuvoic project which aims to improve access to voice recognition technologies for people with dysarthric or unclear speech.

Sean comes from a psychology background and has over 10 years of experience in supporting individuals using technology as a training officer with the Cedar Foundation. He is passionate about promoting independence through helping people to improve their digital skills.

Sarah Blee and Julie Smith

Sarah BleeJulie SmithSarah Blee and Julie Smith are Education Co-ordinators at Sense Centre Knapwell, part of Sense Specialist College, supporting young people with complex communication needs and associated disabilities.  Sarah is qualified as a Multi-Sensory Impairment teacher and as a Teacher of the Deaf and has been with Sense for 7 years.  Julie has been teaching for more than 20 years and has been with Sense for almost 3 years.

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