Adaptive Technology — who designs it best?

Just read an interesting article on

Interesting to me because life with The Boy requires a LOT of adaptive technology. The article (see below) demonstrates how the best adaptive technology comes from people with disabilities, because they think of things the "typically abled" never would.

(On a related note, a few days ago I was checking out my friend's fly-fishing vest. It's design was obviously the result of someone who had done a LOT of fly fishing, and had all kinds of specialized pockets, pouches, zippers and flaps.)

So anyway, the article is:

"The Best Adaptive Technologies Are Designed by, Not for, People With Disabilities" By Sethuraman Panchanathan, found at

In addition to making a compelling argument for including folks with disabilities in the design of the tools they will use, the article points out that we are all looking for ways to enhance our abilities. Kind of like how the elevator we'll be installing will not only allow The Boy to get from floor to floor in our house, it will also make it much easier to bring groceries up from the basement garage.

Here's the text of the article:

Consider for a moment all of the visual cues you rely on when you walk into a room full of people. You can see how many people are there, where they are located, which directions they are facing, and whether they are moving.

You can also read the many nonverbal cues that add to what they are saying. Does a person smile with recognition when you walk in the room, or furrow their brow trying to remember who you are? Does your suggestion elicit a disapproving smirk or a nod of the head? Are your anecdotes met with rapt attention, or is the listener yawning and toying with their cellphone?

Sighted people take these cues for granted, interpreting this vast supply of information subconsciously. For people who are blind or visually impaired, the absence of this information can make social interactions extremely difficult and/or awkward. Fortunately, we can now develop technologies that provide the information in nonvisual ways.

Technology—particularly multimedia and ubiquitous computing—can help enrich life, enhance productivity and promote independent living for people across the entire spectrum of abilities. For example, the Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing (CUbiC) at Arizona State University is developing a social interaction assistant to address the problems listed above for people with visual impairments.  (Disclosure: I work for ASU; ASU is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense.)

One thing we have learned from working with potential users is that people with visual impairments rely heavily on their sense of hearing. If an assistive device provides auditory feedback, it could drown out important situational information. In the case of missed conversation, this would be inconvenient. In a situation like a traffic crossing, it would be hazardous. As a result, we are developing a wearable device that uses tactile cues such as pattern of vibrations to convey information.

Truly revolutionary technologies require engagement with users throughout the design and development process. While it’s helpful to get feedback and ideas from focus groups on users’ needs, short sessions don’t give us a full understanding of the challenges and opportunities in developing assistive technology solutions. It is imperative that people with disabilities play a leading role in envisioning, conceptualizing, developing, implementing, deploying, testing, and validating potential solutions, tools, and technologies.

Several years ago, an ASU student came to me asking about technology that might help him get access to the content of the blackboard in his classes. David Hayden was a freshman double-majoring in math and computer science, and he also was visually impaired. Even sitting at the front of the class couldn’t get him the access to the board to understand the process being enumerated in solving math problems or designing an algorithm by his professors.

I encouraged him to  come work in my lab with a team to see how we could solve this problem. After all, who better understood this problem than David?

In his sophomore year, he began working at the CUbiC lab, developing an application on a tablet connected to a camera with a pan-tilt-zoom feature. He could take the device to his classes and have the video of the blackboard piped into his laptop. Then he did something even more clever—he split the screen into two halves. One side of the screen showed the video of the blackboard while the other was used to design a “notes” interface. He linked sections of the class notes to individual frames from the video.

David took the prototype to the classroom and shared it with other visually impaired students for obtaining their feedback, which he then used to further improve the device. At the end of his junior year, he submitted his invention to the worldwide Microsoft Imagine Cup competition in the “touch and tablet” category. He won both the national and world competitions in that category.

After graduation, David received an internship opportunity at NASA and is now pursuing a Ph.D. at MIT. He’s also manufacturing his Note-Taker prototype for use by others.

Once visually impaired students started using Note-Taker in classrooms, something truly remarkable happened. Sighted students began asking for the technology for their own use. This is not actually uncommon among well-designed assistive devices. For example, the first commercially successful typewriter, the Hansen Writing Ball, was designed to help blind people write through touch-typing. The QWERTY keyboards we use with our computers today are descendants of this accessibility tool.  

In reality, we are all looking for ways to enhance our abilities. For instance, a soldier on the battlefield needs better access to information at night or in stressful environments. One could argue that blindness is not only a disability but a concept. We are all blind from a touch perspective to distant environments like exploring the surface of Mars. Assistive technologies have the power to transcend our limitations and enrich our lives.

Through the Roof

A Blog Supported by the Mosaic ministry of Third Church, ECO

"Some men came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. 4 Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on." (Mark 2:3-4)

About: This is a blog about accessibility, intimacy, and community. About being welcome.  It’s also about bringing up The Boy. He's 10 years old and has cerebral palsy. Also popping up are The TeenGirl, who just turned 13, and The Mom, who is awesome. It's written by The Dad. It's my words, my view. Other people will think differently and have different opinions. Good.