It may sound like a bold statement, but Starfish Labs, based at Aberystwyth University’s Innovation Centre, have long recognised the power of technology to demystify processes, teach new skills and support people in times of stress and illness.
Enriching the lives of people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) has been a key focus for the team. In a year that has posed remarkable new challenges for us all, Starfish Labs recognised the real need to support these groups through a new suite of apps that could help to make sense of the new processes and restrictions.
The first, ‘COVID-19 – Staying Safe’ app was developed in conjunction with Derwen College – an Ofsted Outstanding rated special educational needs college. It features simple instructions for wearing different types of face coverings, hand washing, sanitising and information about the virus and signposting to current regional guidance.
Part funded by the Welsh Government rapid response Covid-19 RD&I scheme, it is unique in allowing carers, parents or teachers to customise the content. They can follow simple steps to make it relevant to their own environment and to the changing national, regional and local lockdown rules.
As Starfish Labs Director, Neil Bevan explains: “So much of the existing guidance doesn’t really mean very much to someone with learning difficulties or who doesn’t recognise that generic images of hand washing or face coverings have any meaning to their own life.
“We recognised that a suite of apps could help to simplify the guidance – breaking instructions down into understandable short sequences – and the ability for people to use their own photos or videos of their own masks, their own washbasin, and their own local environment would make the rules much more relevant.”
The full suite includes ‘Covid-19: Social Space’ which provides guidance on ‘Social Distancing’ and ‘Support Bubbles’ and what to expect when out and about and ‘Covid-19: Happy & Healthy’, which introduces ideas to keep well and healthy both in body and mind during the pandemic and beyond.
The apps are made as accessible as possible through cartoons, photographs, videos and simple text instructions along with Makaton, a unique language programme that uses symbols, signs and speech to enable people to communicate.
In their two years as a business they’ve worked on other transformational projects including an award-winning suite of apps to help people with learning difficulties and disabilities gain work experience and ultimately achieve supported employment. The likes of Premier Inn have also adopted their bespoke training apps for the hospitality and housekeeping sector.
The team’s eclectic backgrounds – from creative design and marketing, technology, retail management, pharmacy to academic research – have proven to be a key ingredient in Starfish Lab’s success. Applying real-life experience from a diverse range of industries has ensured its products are not only commercially viable, but innovative and, crucially, deliver measurable outcomes.
The work of Starfish Labs serves as a welcome reminder that technology can still be a formidable force for good and that the drive to a more digital society can, and must, be an inclusive one. For Starfish Labs this means giving SEND users opportunities to gain employment, gain the independent living skills for life and work and ultimately live life to the full.