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Posted on June 6, 2015

We took to the streets of Bristol again this month, with new member of the Marketing team, James.

Using our Grid Pad Go 11, James undertook the challenge of ordering coffee for eight people at a bustling outdoor café without using his voice.

Putting Grid 3 through its paces, James created his first grid set and proceeded to place his order amidst the sound of sirens and heavy traffic. Find out how he got on and whether he was awarded the prized Keep Cup.

I’m James and I recently joined Smartbox as a web designer. My first week was full of the usual new job activities: getting the right forms to the right people, making sure I knew who to ask for what and finding my way around (I’ve moved from sunny Wales so am in a new city, frequently getting lost among Bristol’s plentiful hills).

As my first week drew to its close, a small box containing a reusable coffee cup was placed on my desk. It was then I was informed of the Coffee Challenge – an initiation for new staff to the Smartbox team. My prize? The black and neon blue cup (and the honour of reusing it!).

The challenge is as follows: without using any words, order coffee for the team, using our products (of course). Simple.

Smartbox creates accessible hardware and software to help disabled people communicate. The team here in the Bristol office have been working flat out to put the finishing touches on the Grid 3 software which allows people without the power of speech to communicate using touch, switches, heading tracking or even by following their gaze. The software does even more, but giving people a voice is a huge thing.

So I sat down with the latest beta version of Grid 3 late on the Friday afternoon and made myself a grid of ‘things I would say if I needed to order coffee’, remembering my ‘please’ and ‘thanks you’s. Trying to make sure I had all the numbers and beverages that may be called upon.

Monday came around and the last few adjustments were made; I’d remembered a colleague has soya milk and that I would possibly need a keyboard to drop in any surprise words I’d forgotten.

The whole team came along to witness my trial. We marched (well, pleasantly strolled) to the Bearpit in Bristol where the coffee shop was located. I took everyone’s order (five flat whites, one soya milk flat white, a hot chocolate and a filter coffee), switched on my tablet and shut my mouth.

Now, I’m not going to say the result was how I’d planned. The barista seemed slightly puzzled and frustrated by my responses; the outdoor cafe was busy, the main road only a few metres away was a source of white noise and my small tablet and speaker set-up just wasn’t loud enough with a speaker pumping music out right next to me.

I’d also forgotten to add hot chocolate to my word list…

Eventually I had my drinks in front of me. One soya milk flat white, One flat white, a hot chocolate and a filter coffee. I was short four coffees! I hadn’t planned for this either…

My heart was pumping, I still hadn’t said a word, I’d barely made eye contact with the staff as I frantically tried to type that I needed another four coffees. This wasn’t how I’d planned at all.

I realise now that my main mistake was having very little idea what the software could do to make this easier for me. In what some would say arrogance, what I would call an experiment, I hadn’t really asked for help with getting started, nor really explored the many options available when starting a grid from scratch.

Another four coffees eventually appeared and I mashed frantically at my ‘Thank You’ button.

Ultimately I got what I wanted. I finished the order, paid and swiftly tried to remove myself from the cafe. The coffees were delivered to my new workmates and the plastic reusable coffee cup presented to me.

Looking back, this exercise in experimentation with alternative communication techniques is important. We take for granted how quickly we can grasp a word, respond fluidly in conversation, make our wants and needs known. Without a voice we can be stifled, frustrated and easily misunderstood. My discomfort for a few minutes on a Monday morning is nothing compared to what could be experienced by others on an hourly basis. Yes, I now work for a company that makes solutions for these issues but awareness of these issues that many people struggle with helps everyone.

Our software is easy to use, accessible and solves the problems it sets out to, but that doesn’t take into account the appreciation you must have for the almost infinite complexities of language and the ease of being able to conjure words in milliseconds to your lips. Removing that, relying on a touch screen is, quite simply, a challenge.

So, why not challenge yourself? Your workmates? Your friends? Make it a bet, make it rewarding. Try and order a coffee without your own voice. If you have an iPhone or iPad you can download Grid Player for free to try out what ACC software can do. If you do, let us know how you get on!

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