I have spent a great deal of my life looking for ways to use my experience and skills to build technology (and help others build technology) that impacts the lives of people who face burdens due to either disability or disadvantage. One of my core mission is to help achieve equitable access to electronic information and training in modern digital skills for people with visual disabilities. I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to contribute to this field and I am committed to supporting this cause in larger and larger ways as my career progresses.
The DIAGRAM Center is the research branch of Benetech Inc. (Beneficent Technologies). I have been working with Benetech since 2013 when I was awarded a grant to compile a set of best practices for providing pedagogically-equivalent information to blind people about content within interactive scientific graphics. Since 2013, I have attended the biannual planning meetings and worked on the Developers Working Group.
In keeping with the DIAGRAM Center goal of dramatically changing the way image and graphic content for accessible instructional materials (AIM) is produced and accessed, DIAGRAM both conducts its own research and partners with other organizations to conduct research to achieve this goal. One such research report on Accessible Dynamic Scientific Graphics was completed by Kyle Keane of Wolfram Research in June 2014. This project surveys the current best practices for making dynamic scientific graphics accessible to persons with severe visual impairments in order to better understand the most effective practices for providing pedagogically-equivalent information about common scientific visualizations using audio feedback and verbal description.
I am quite pleased at the reception of my message that we need to start thinking about how to offer pedagogically-equivalent information to blind users of interactive graphics. My recommendations for a separation of intent from action spurred the creation of the User-Intent Working Group in the W3C. My guidelines for verbal description has been adopted by the team at University of Colorado who are building a library of interactive science teaching tools called PhET simulations. these simulations are the best examples of accessible interactive graphics for science education and I am deeply grateful for the chance to contribute to their development.
TeachAccess is a group of corporate and education partners working to bring accessibility into the mainstream computer science curriculum. I supported the early development of the group and provided feedback on draft teaching materials for the group. I also helped with the strategic plan for garnering adoption of their teaching materials into the accreditation requirements.
Technology companies dedicated to accessibility have faced the common challenge of preparing designers, engineers and researchers to think and build inclusively. Similarly, academic programs in design, engineering and HCI are seeking ways to better prepare students to address the needs of diverse populations. Given this shared challenge, industry, academia and advocacy have now come together to create models for teaching and training students of technology to create accessible experiences.
TeachAccess has grown to become quite a potent group in the world of accessibility. Our recommendations has been accepted for consideration in the next round of accreditation updates and accessibility bootcamps have begun on college campuses for interested faculty.
I have offered workshops and training about accessibility at every university and company I have worked for, as well as many of my colleagues companies. Often companies are concerned primarily with the legal landscape, how best to test accessibility, and how to develop a remediation plan.
During these training sessions I will often perform a live demo of using a screenreader to try to access the company's websites and software products. This usually reveals some glaring failure modes that most developers seem very interested in fixing if I can tell them how to do it. I then discuss the legal risks and realities that the company should be aware of, primarily this means they will be asked to provide a voluntary accessibility review if they are doing business with the government or colleges. Many of those institutions are required to buy an accessible alternative if one exists and will need a remediation plan for any identified shortcomings. In the private sphere the main motivators are our general cultural respect for helping people with disabilities and the possibility of discrimination lawsuits.
I maintain very positive relationships with a number of companies who send me recurring requests for consultations. I am a fairly upbeat, friendly, and technically-literate person that can keep positive relationships with developers and executives.
ATHack is a student-run hackathon at MIT that allows designers and engineers to co-design products with people who have disabilities. Since arriving at MIT I have been working as the staff advisor for the hackathon.
The goal of ATHack is to bring awareness to the important field of developing assistive technologies. We pair teams of students with clients in the Boston/Cambridge community who live with a disability. Each client has a problem in mind which they face because of their disability. Over the course of the hackathon, students brainstorm, design, and create prototype solutions for their client.
Future projects that I would like to build
Spinal curvature sensor
I would like to create a line of bend sensors that could track the curvature of a spine in real time with high angular resolution. The device could support rehabilitation therapists and yoga practitioners. I know there are similar ideas for creating smart technology, but I think the high resolution spinal tracking would provide better data for characterizes human movement.
Affordable, portable braille printer
Essentially the device would be a 2D drawing machine that would emboss aluminum foil. The foil could be reused by flattening out the grooves imprinted by the drawing machine. This could be done cheap enough to be affordable to people without the money or access to have refreshable braille displays or chemical printers.