Write On Assistive Technology!

Building software tools to help people with disabilities today
Guy Barker – Founder and enthusiast, Herbi.org
Guy Barker is a Senior Software Design Engineer with Microsoft Corp. All his Herbi.org work is done in his spare time.
Contact Barker@Herbi.org for information about any of the tools shown here. Demonstration videos are at Herbi.org.
How you can help!
All the improvements made to these projects are based on feedback from occupational therapists, teachers, and parents who are using the software. If you know of someone who might find these tools helpful and have ideas on how they can be made more useful to the student, let me know. In many cases the software can be updated based on your input.
It’s your thoughts that make the difference!
                 What is Herbi.org?
Herbi.org is a collection of technologies enabling people with disabilities to develop their handwriting skills and communicate through handwriting and speech. Herbi.org includes four tools:
    Tablet PC Speech Assistant
    Herbi Writer Handwriting Development
    Herbi Letters Letter Recognition
    Herbi Numbers Simple Addition
In 2003 I met a University student who could handwrite but was unable to speak. The student communicated through the use of pen and paper. At the time I worked in the Tablet PC team at Microsoft, and thought that a Tablet PC might provide the student with another means of communication. The student could handwrite on the computer screen and the computer would speak the words. To explore this, I built a “handwriting to speech” program called InkTalk, by linking the Tablet PC’s built-in handwriting recognition  and text-to-speech features.
This sparked my interest in exploring how current technologies can help people with disabilities in new ways.  I learnt that someone working with the Easter Seals organization had used a Tablet PC to help students with dysgraphia, and a parent told me that her daughter had a breakthrough with her reading skills when she could use her assistive technology in the more relaxed environment  provided by a Tablet PC.
I set up the Herbi.org web site with free software tools so people can try out the software and provide feedback to help me make the tools more useful. The four tools shown here are actively being worked on thanks to all the valuable feedback I’ve received.
Tablet PC Speech Assistant
Speaking Aloud by Handwriting
The Tablet PC Speech Assistant communication tool helps people who cannot speak, but who can handwrite. This software was written by a friend for his mother who had ALS, (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, or Motor Neurone Disease). This software is particularly interesting as it integrates handwriting with the selection of words and phrases from lists.
I’ve updated the software based on feedback from people with ALS, individuals at the ALS Association, and other experts in the field of speech disabilities. I’ve added an on-screen keyboard, and made it easier to add or remove words and phrases. I am currently working with a person who has had a stroke and has lost the ability to speak in order to determine if the Speech Assistant can improve his ability to communicate.
The Tablet PC Speech Assistant runs on Windows computers running the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition or Windows Vista operating system.
Having Fun with Handwriting Development
The Herbi Writer Handwriting Development software shows sample letters being formed, and provides positive feedback when the student writes letters which match the samples.
In 2006 I was contacted by an occupational therapist  who was looking for handwriting development software  to help her students, who had a range of disabilities. Based on her input I built Herbi Writer. The student copies a sample letter, and Herbi Writer evaluates the student’s letter depending on how closely it matches the sample. The software is usually used at computers which have some sort of stylus to write with, but it can be run on a regular desktop computer in order to consider its potential to help your students.
Based on feedback from OTs and teachers from all over the US, Herbi Writer includes features such as modes to trace over a sample letter or to write at a distance from the sample, game mode, speech or sounds when the student’s letter has been evaluated, and three skill levels. Herbi Writer comes with sets of sample letters and a set of sample shapes for students who have yet to progress to letters. It is also possible for the OT or teacher using  Herbi Writer to create custom sets of letters.
The Join the Dots  feature was added in response to feedback from an Autism center where Herbi Writer is used.
In the future, Herbi Writer will present sample letters from  more alphabets than the English and Spanish versions available today.  With the introduction of less expensive  Netbook computers, it is hoped that Herbi Writer will be used by students around the world.
This software runs on any Windows XP or Vista computer.
Letter Recognition
The simple Herbi Letters software presents a letter and the student is to select the same letter from a set of nearby letters. While the effectiveness of this software is still being determined, the OT did say that “he LOVES when Herbi tells him he's done a good job!” I built Herbi Letters After being contacted by an OT looking for software that might help a particular student who cannot recognize all the letters of the alphabet.
Simple Addition
The new project Herbi Numbers is aimed at exploring what tools might be useful to students who have access only to old computers without current hardware or software updates. Herbi Number presents an addition question next to a set of colorful items. Positive feedback is shown when the student’s answer is correct. Initial comments from a school that does not have modern hardware has been encouraging, and updates will be made to Herbi Numbers based on the school’s suggestions.
Herbi.org timeline
What people say about Herbi Writer…
Illinois: I've been meaning to get back in touch with you to let you know how pleased I and my fellow OT's are with Herbi writer. We use it almost every day. I have one student in particular that I wanted to share his response with you. He is a four year old autistic student who before starting with Herbi writer had almost no tolerance for holding a pencil, crayon or marker nor using it appropriately. I started using Herbi with him and now he requests it with his PECs and accepts hand over hand assistance to make the figures correctly to see Herbi smile, he scribbles independently and likes to hear it talk and the watch the ink disappear. He is attending to the figures and is making the association to tracing success and the Herbi response. We are all very pleased with his progress in such a short time.
New York: The kids that use the program really like it and ask if they can work with Herbi all the time.   
Pennsylvania: I’ve been sharing it with colleagues; it is working well. ... will include Herbi in my recommendations with students with graphomotor problems.
Tennessee: Just had to tell you:  I love the way the formation patterns can be customized! 
Virginia: I see the kids are very responsive esp with a voice reinforcer. It is a great program.
Washington: I have been using your herbi program for handwriting for a few months with my special needs kids that have trouble with legibility in their writing –they are happy with the program and enjoy it.
Washington: The trace function made an ENORMOUS difference with <the student>. He does not want to put Herbi Writer down now.
Wisconsin: We have trained some classroom teachers to use your program in the classroom so it serves as a nice "inclusion strategy" as another option for writing.  It has also proven to be a "simple to learn", "motivating option" for some students that have struggled with writing.
Florida: I would just like to say that I have just downloaded your Herbi program for use on my Smartboard, and my students love it.
Missouri: Just wanted to let you know I was finally able to get with our technology person and get Herbiwriter set up on a Smart board.  I am so impressed!!
California: I have also presented Herbi Writer to some classes and got cheers from the students and the teacher!  My student who receives OT in that class just beamed and he demonstrated for everyone!
     2003              2004                            2005                                     2006                                2007                                             2008                                           2009
Build InkTalk - a simple “handwriting to speech” tool after meeting a student with a speech disability.
Research uses of the Tablet PC as an AT tool. Discuss mobile AT with Director of IT for the Easter Seals.
Build Picture Helper, a tool to annotate images viewed in a browser.
Explore ways to make cartoons and other line-based diagrams more accessible.
Build prototype software including BicycleBits and OinkMail.
Demonstrate prototype software at a Microsoft Research Faculty Summit.
Build Herbi Writer handwriting development software.
Demonstrate Herbi.org software at ITiCSE ‘07 conference.
Make Tablet PC Speech Assistant software available at Herbi.org
Herbi Writer article published in OT Advance Magazine
Enable Herbi Writer for SmartBoard use in schools.
Update Speech Assistant based on feedback from two people with ALS.
Demonstrate software at Autism Center and University of Washington.
Build letter recognition software Herbi Letters
Provide Herbi Writer CDs for distribution at Autism Conference
Run Herbi Writer on a netbook computer.
Herbi Writer demonstrated at a Ministry of Education in South America. Make a Spanish version available.
Add new Herbi Writer features including Trace mode and Join the Dots.
Start prototype software Herbi Numbers.
Add new Speech Assistant features based on feedback from AAC experts, and investigate its potential value to a stroke patient.