A Cork man has created assistive school technology to support children who have disabilities and allow them to enjoy their education. His own experience inspired him to do so.
James Northridge, 36, from Cloyne, was diagnosed with dyslexia when he was in school. Struggling with that and with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, he dropped out of university.
Far from letting this deter him, James went on to graduate with an MSc in rehabilitation and disability studies from University College Dublin in 2014, before completing a three-year Marie Curie fellowship at the University of Massachusetts Medical school in Boston in 2016.
In 2014, James began work on UrAbility, assistive technology that is reinventing the way parents and educators support children who have disabilities and which is enhancing the learning experience with an online training and support model.
UrAbility’s online platform uses algorithms to auto assign online courses and advise on assistive technologies based on the user’s technical abilities, spoken language, and location.
UrAbility has since been supported by University College Cork’s (UCC) business incubation programme, IGNITE, where James recently won business of the year and pitch of the year.
Speaking to The Echo about his venture, James explained the inspiration behind his application.
“My own experience in school, of not being good at reading and writing, was my key inspiration for UrAbility,” he said. “In primary and secondary school, it really matters what your peers think.
“At times, I was a bit embarrassed when I was struggling at every turn. In primary school, it didn’t bother me too much that I was different to others, but when I got to first year in secondary school and started failing exams, it was a different story.
“I didn’t like that feeling, where I felt I was stupid and just not good enough,” James said.
“With UrAbility, I wanted to minimise any negative feelings for other students that are going through the same experience. If I made school better for one child, that was good enough for me.”
James explained that his positive experience with assistive tools allowed him to begin to succeed in education.
“In second year of secondary school, my science teacher asked me to dictate answers to her for an exam,” he said. “In doing that, she enabled me to succeed. She taught me that if I had the right tools, I could get around any obstacle.
“Assistive technology can enable students in a similar way.”
Asked about the main aim of UrAbility, James said: “Our main aim is to improve students’ experience in school, to keep learning fun,” he said. “Kids need to enjoy learning and if they enjoy it, they will stay learning.
“If literacy and numeracy are difficult, it makes the rest of the school experience a bit of a battle.
“With the right support and technology, school can be a much more positive, empowering, and enriching place.”
In 2014, James started to run children’s summer camps in universities across Ireland. The camps made use of assistive technology.
“It was important to me that kids saw a university campus as a place where they belonged, so that they could do and be anything they wanted to,” he said. “I kept UrAbility going on a part-time basis since then, while working in a variety of other jobs.
“Then, in 2019, when I joined IGNITE, I stepped away from a full-time position and decided to give UrAbility absolutely everything and see where we could bring it,” he said.
Founded in 2011 and supported by Bank of Ireland, IGNITE is a joint initiative by Cork City Council, Cork County Council, the local enterprise offices, and UCC to encourage entrepreneurship and enterprise creation.
Based at UCC, the 12-month IGNITE programme is open to all recent graduates from all third-level institutions in Ireland to work full-time on a scalable start-up idea that has potential for commercial or social impact.
Since 2011, IGNITE has worked with around 100 start-ups and 120 founders of companies.
“IGNITE gave me the opportunity to see UrAbility as a full-time business,” James said.
“It also gave me the chance to rewrite the playbook and focus on the business, rather than just working in the business.
“The mentorship, business acumen, and encouraging environment has been extremely valuable, not to mention the financial backing, and it has inspired me to look to the future and always think big.”
As a result of James’s work and the partnership with IGNITE, UrAbility is reinventing the way parents and educators support children who have disabilities, by creating a new learning experience with an online training and support membership model.
“Via UrAbility’s online platform, users are guided through a technology selection tool,” James said. “Users are auto-assigned online courses based on their technical abilities, spoken language, and location.
“We focus on the experience of the student by providing support and training to parents and educators to have a better understanding of assistive technology, so they can enable and support students to use the technology effectively and, ultimately, succeed in education and life.
“More than ever, now, the online training space is being utilised and it is saving education in a very difficult time. We have an online community, where parents and educators can get information and advice. We want students and families to feel like we are there for them in that moment of need,” James said.
The reaction UrAbility has received has been “positive from the get-go”, he said.
“We have gotten a lot of feedback that our online courses and advice has really helped many students.
“We work hard, so families know we are on their team and helping them along.
“We are very often contacted by parents, in particular, who feel they have been able to better support their child after our online training,” James said.
“That, for me, is priceless.”
UrAbility has three staff and will recruit three more in the coming months.
“We recently were awarded a business expansion grant from the Cork City Enterprise Board, which will help us with this recruitment over the coming months.
“Working from home suits us well; I’m very much about getting the work done when you’re at your best, so I let it up to staff to choose,” he added.
“My ultimate goal has always been to improve the school experience for students.
“We are mainly providing services in Ireland, at the moment, but we are working on expanding to the UK in October and the USA is my main goal for 2021,” James said.
“Students with additional needs face common challenges the world over and, though the education systems may differ, I can see how we can support more and more students now, especially with online training for parents and educators.”
Reflecting on his own experience in the education system, James said: “Self-belief is really important. I would say there’s no set path to becoming who you want to be.
“I had an idea, starting out, that college was only for smart people and I worried that I would be found out.
“I had a case of imposter syndrome that’s still with me to this day. Slowly, but surely, I found support from the right people. If you feel you want to go to college, you should go for it.
“You need to focus on what you’re good at and build a good team of support around you. We focus for far too long on what we are not good at,” James said.
“I was great at presenting, talking to lecturers, and making connections. I’m still not good at reading or writing, to this day, and I never will be. I can find ways around that, though,” he added.
“Touch base with the disability support services at college; make use of the resources available,” is James’s advice to students.
“It’s important to realise that you have the ability to succeed in whatever you want to do,” he said.