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Connecting is Critical

By Marianne R. Petit

In the Spring of 2020, my undergraduate course, “Introduction to Assistive Technology”, had the good fortune of once again partnering with the Adaptive Design Association (ADA). The course is housed at the Interactive Media Arts (IMA) Program at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Participating students work with both individuals and organizations to develop adaptive and assistive technologies. Their work is accompanied by readings, discussion, and critique to contextualize their process as inclusive designers.

The course had previously partnered with ADA. In the spring of 2019, students were taken through a person-centered design process in the making of adaptive technologies. They were introduced to the organization’s work and mission through an in-person tour. They learned from countless stories and had the opportunity to see and hold equipment in hand. Students were introduced to Benny, a young boy who was about to receive his first piece of equipment. They were challenged to develop foot and head switch activated games that Benny could play with his brother. Over the next six weeks, they worked in teams to develop prototypes and presented their work regularly to both Benny’s occupational therapist and ADA staff.

Of course, the 2020-2021 school year was unlike any previous year. Due to the pandemic, students were studying remotely from all corners of the world. Many did not have access to a shop or to digital fabrication tools. We needed to think creatively as to what students could do virtually.

Adam and Tamara came up with a remarkable idea. ADA had been approached by the International Academy of Hope (iHOPE), a school that works with students with brain injuries and other cognitive impairments. The school’s AT specialist was in the process of establishing a lending library of switches for their students. Switches are an essential technology for individuals with disabilities. They allow users to interact with hundreds of devices, from augmentative communication devices, mobility devices, computers, tablets and mobile devices, toys, and more. Switches vary in size, sensitivity, and point of access. No single switch works for everyone, so there are hundreds of switches to choose from. Switches can also be prohibitively expensive, so building a lending library is a costly endeavor. The team at iHope was wondering if there was a way to harness current technologies and 3D printing to develop more affordable solutions. This became our partnership as well as the focus of the course.

Through numerous virtual meetings with Tamara and Adam, students learned about switches and how they are often used in both educational settings and with children. Students learned about critical factors regarding form and function that needed to be considered in their designs. They were additionally challenged to make switches that would also be unique and appealing to children.

After paper sketches, students prototyped with simple materials -- paper, cardboard, and air drying clay. After several rounds of feedback, they then embarked on transferring their ideas into Fusion360, a cloud-based 3D modeling environment. The hope was to deliver working 3D files to ADA.

What they delivered was quite remarkable. I found that my students were inspired -- both by the mission of ADA and by the challenge of building affordable and accessible switches. They were energized by the prospect of doing meaningful work and being useful at a time when many felt isolated and confined by the pandemic. In the end, I found myself both moved and tremendously impressed by their final projects. They rose to the challenge and delivered truly thoughtful solutions for potential end-users. As an educator, I simply cannot overstate the value of this type of collaboration and learning opportunity.

I’ve been told that some of their designs have deployed into iHope and that is tremendously satisfying for the students involved. Many heartfelt thanks to ADA for this learning opportunity.

Included photos by Grace Redman, Lucy Liang & Nina Chu


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