Walk into any newly constructed building and you’ll find buttons to automatically open doors, Braille on signs, and other Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant features, but people who need these services say they aren’t always designed with them in mind. It’s one of the many insights provided by disability consultants during Virginia Tech researchers’ first technology “playdate” this summer.

The workshop, which introduced innovative technologies in the construction industry and beyond, put the community consultants in the driver’s seat. Participants represented a wide range of disability knowledge with no restrictions on the types or number of their disabilities. All they needed to participate was a willingness to try out new technologies.

The opinions and needs of the disability community are often overlooked when new technologies are designed, said Ashley Shew, associate professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. 

“So many people get to be professionals about disabled people, but not the disabled person themselves,” said Shew. “We want disabled people as collaborators, colleagues, and people who have equal weight and expertise to give as other people in their room.”

Many of the technologies featured at the workshop already aim to refine work processes: Spot, a robotic dog, improves efficiency on construction sites, virtual and augmented reality glasses allow people to safely explore a highway job site or walk through a building, and drones can give a bird’s eye view of a project. After seeing these technologies in action, the consultants highlighted specific ways these technologies can improve accessibility by removing barriers and optimizing everyday tasks.

The first group of consultants gather with researchers to try out robotic research including Spot, a robotic dog. Photo by Kereshmeh Afsari for Virginia Tech

Duane Treacy is one of the project’s first consultants. As a wheelchair user, he sees a future where robotic dogs help him more easily go kayaking.

“You see glimpses of this technology on social media, but to actually have a firsthand experience was really incredible,” Treacy said.

The group of consultants was able to virtually tour Virginia Tech buildings, including Bishop-Favrao Hall, where the workshop took place, and the Creativity and Innovation District. They pointed out inaccessible or inconvenient areas. They looked into ways people could use the technology in a work-from-home setting.

“Possibilities are unlimited with these types of features,“ said Treacy.

Disability-forward research 

The workshop was planned by Virginia Tech researchers from the College of Engineering and the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences as well as the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Together, they want to create opportunities for community consultants to give feedback on technologies and to incorporate diverse perspectives from the disability community into future design work.

Along with Shew, the interdisciplinary team includes three co-principal investigators:

Researchers Ashley Shew (at center) and Kereshmeh Afsari (at right) robotic controllers. Photo by Ashley Williamson for Virginia Tech.

The three-year project is dedicated to bringing in voices from the disability community from the start. Oftentimes, Shew said, people with disabilities are treated as unknowledgeable about themselves or as anonymous human subjects. To challenge these attitudes, Shew included a very specific component in the grant — paid participation for anyone with a disability who offers their expertise.

The team’s $502,000 grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation will enable educational workshops and cultural events including an artist residency program, inclusive gaming community, and build community. At the end of the project, the researchers want to establish a Disability Community Technology Center. 

Afsari focuses on technology and its benefits — specifically in the architecture, engineering, and construction industries. She heavily works with Spot to improve safety — and now accessibility — throughout the construction process.

“The design process is the pivotal point where the built environment is shaping,” said Afsari. “Having the opportunity to receive direct advising from the disability community during the design process can guide a better-quality built environment.” 

The current lack of collaboration, Shew said, leads to injustices that can hurt the very community people are trying to help.

“It’s about actually feeling included at the start, not just as a begrudging afterthought,” said Shew.

A consultant tests virtual reality technology that allows her to navigate through a building while a graduate student holds a phone displaying what she is seeing in real time. Photo by Ashley Shew for Virginia Tech.

Cultivating community 

A key feature of this research is its focus on cross-disability expertise. To participate in many other research projects, Shew said, participants can have only one disability. But this research allows and celebrates those with expertise in several areas.

By coming together for a few hours during the workshop, the consultants were quick to think about people with other obstacles and needs in a way some aren’t able to.

“Very quickly, our interactions developed into a cooperative brainstorming and theorizing environment,” said Williams. “Different kinds of expertise were put into conversation with one another and out of which emerged new crucial insights.”

The collaboration not only benefits researchers and future generations with technological advancements, but it allows for community building in a group that often feels marginalized. Shew said research shows community improves quality of life, even if there are no physical or mental changes. It’s something she herself experienced when she first arrived in Blacksburg.

“Us being together is itself a goal of this research,” said Shew. “I'm multiply disabled, but I learned so much just by listening to my friends and colleagues.”

While July’s workshop was an important first event, researchers hope it’s just the beginning. They want to see more researchers and community consultants willing to set up and learn — whether it’s traditional assistive technologies such as prosthetics and speech recognition or more forward-focused research such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and automation. The group also hopes to see more people with disabilities be part of these “playdates.” Anyone interested in participating in the workshop can fill out a survey to be contacted. 

Written by Ashley Williamson