Stephen Hawking photo  The Hawking Toolbar  Stephen Hawking photo

"My body may be stuck in this wheelchair, but with the Internet my mind can go to the ends of the universe."
- Stephen Hawking, University of Cambridge Physicist, 1/6/97

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The Hawking Toolbar is a plug-in for the Firefox web browser that frees individuals with severely limited motor abilities to explore the internet, without limits.

Unlike expensive commercial products, it is free and customizable.  Published under the open-source GPL license, it can be enhanced or customized by anyone with the appropriate technical skills.  By using a
Firefox plug-in we can deliver a robust product:
For too many centuries, people with physical disabilities have been treated as inferior by society.  Considering that one of the greatest geniuses of our time, physicist Stephen Hawking, lives with a debilitating form of Lou Gehrig's disease and yet continues to live a rich life and makes giant contributions to our understanding of the universe, it is obvious that this unfair treatment hurts all of us.  Technology makes it possible for Mr. Hawking to communicate his ideas to us; he shows us that there is no definite correlation between physical ability and the greatness of the human spirit.  This toolbar is a small tribute to him and all individuals who face the biggest challenge of all: our own prejudices.

The challenge:
Most of us take for granted the ability to navigate the web using a mouse and keyboard.  But, like many physically disabled individuals, Stephen Hawking's physical motion is limited to controlling a simple switch with his hand.  Others
may be more limited, such as only being able to raise or lower an eyebrow; however, this motion can be read and converted into an electronic signal to communicate choice.  The challenge is to free all these users by letting them choose efficiently from among possibly hundreds of links on a web site. 

The solution:
By using the Hawking Toolbar, the standard Firefox browser automatically cycles through the links of a web page, highlighting each link for a short period.  The user selects a link by signalling to the browser (with their standard switch) when the desired link is highlighted.  The plug-in also provides buttons that are cycled through: Back, Home, Favorites, and Options.  Whether a user can control two switches or only one, the general solution is the same, but the use of two switches allows enhanced control and efficiency.

When the page is complex or has many links, the page may be broken into sections (typically the visible page will be divided into quadrants or widget/ frame areas).  The browser will then cycle through these regions, highlighting each before scrolling down to the next part of the page.  If the user selects a region then it is explored more fully by cycling through its component links or widgets.  This option of region-scanning is a user-selectable choice.

Each user may customize the appearance and behavior of the link scanner to provide sufficient visual (and possibly audio) clues, and to provide the reaction time appropriate for each user to select a link, according to their specific needs.  For more info, see the screenshots.

Mozilla .xpi extension file, using Mozilla's XUL for user interface.  CSS to define buttons/ widgets, possibly XBL to describe bindings via CSS/DOM, and JavaScript to control behavior and to interact with DOM.  Big thanks to Jonah Bishop and his Firefox toolbar tutorial.

The Hawking Toolbar was released in Spring 2005 under the GPL free and open-source licence.
Current status of project is available here.

Brett Clippingdale, Computer Science Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Project Advisor:
Gary Bishop, UNC Professor of Comp Sci, Accessibily Guru, Original Thinker (TM) and All-Around Nice Guy.

Email contact info:
<brett<dot>clippingdale> at <gmail<dot>com>
<gb> at <cs<dot>unc<dot>edu>

Stephen Hawking (of course!), Physicist and Lucasian professor of Mathematics, University of Cambridge

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EECS, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor