New mix-and-match computer accessories give people with disabilities easier ways to work and create

For Helmes, the many experts — electrical and mechanical engineers, UX researchers, software developers — who joined his mouse project from Asia, the U.S. and the U.K. helped turn his idea into a reality. Like him, many were motivated by someone they knew or loved who might benefit from the technology.

“People came together with their own expertise and passion about accessibility in a really beautiful way,” says Helmes, a senior designer who was working on the Azure Sphere platform when he started his Hackathon project. “It’s going to be absolutely amazing to see what the future holds.”

The products have already had an impact for Microsoft developer Jeremy Likness. Diagnosed in early 2020 with young-onset Parkinson’s disease, Likness has a tremor in his left, dominant hand that makes typing and mousing difficult. He explored assistive technologies like a foot pedal and a head tracker, but nothing felt natural or efficient.

New mix-and-match computer accessories give people with disabilities easier ways to work and create
Microsoft Adaptive Accessories

He began using the Adaptive Accessories as a beta participant and discovered a way to work more productively and with more control and less stiffness. A 3D-printed attachment on the Adaptive Mouse prevents his tremor from triggering unintentional clicks while allowing intentional clicks to go through. His right hand controls the Adaptive Button, which he programmed with macros for common tasks. He also uses speech-to-text software.

For email responses, he presses the button to start a macro that hits reply, writes “Hello,” goes to a new line and opens a voice-typing app. He also uses the button for macros to triage emails and join calls.

“I can dictate at a pretty fast rate,” says Likness, a manager with Microsoft’s .NET developer platform. “I feel like the combination of the adaptive hardware and speech-to-text advances puts me back on par with the level of productivity that I am used to having.”

After he was diagnosed, Likness joined a group for employees with disabilities to support others and raise awareness for the importance of accessibility. As a disability advocate, he was excited to share his lived experiences and feedback on new products designed to help many people.

“It was an opportunity to impact productivity in a tangible way that I know is beneficial because I’ve used it,” he says. “Now other people will be able to use it, so it’s definitely a great feeling and a great experience.”

Lead image: Jara Helmes and her father, John Helmes (photo by Debby Hekkens)

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