Workshop collaborates on new tools for students with disabilities

11 April 2016
We offer a range of support services for students living with a disability

Being a student isn't always easy. Sometimes it can be a struggle staying on top of studies, while juggling social, work and family commitments. For nearly 2,000 University of Sydney students living with a disability, the challenges can be even more daunting.

Take an everyday task like finding a lecture theatre – not so easy when it's hidden on a campus that's so big it has its own postcode.

Last week, students from the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning collaborated with industry professionals and people living with disabilities in Enabled by Design-athon which workshopped new products and technologies to improve people's lives.

Remember playing the hot-cold game as a kid? As you got closer to an object, you’d be met with squeals of: "Warmer! Getting hotter. Hot! Hot!"

The game forms the basis of Echosystems, a tool which aims to help visually impaired people in their daily journeys. The system is based on a simple Bluetooth device that vibrates with increasing frequency and intensity as the user approaches their destination.

“Rolf (a visually impaired team member) spent 45 minutes trying to find this room yesterday,” said Echosystems team member Bella Bain, a third-year Bachelor of Design Computing student. “We’re basically trying to increase the accuracy of his journey, speed up his day and make him more independent through clarity of information.”

Head of the University’s Design Lab Associate Professor Martin Tomitsch said Design-athon was the perfect opportunity for students to put their studies into practice and make a difference to the lives of people with disabilities.

"Technology can be both an enabler and a hindrance for people living with a disability, but coming up with human-centric designs and products can greatly improve access for these people in our community."

By participating in the Enabled by Design-athon, students contributed to a growing dialogue about the importance of developing inclusive technology.

“It’s definitely opened up my mind to be more inclusive with my designs,” said Ms Bain. “We have such an increasing demand for designs that are inclusive on all levels.”

Third-year Bachelor of Design Computing student Kate Archbold stressed the importance of creating inclusive and collaborative dialogue.

“One of the main things I took away from this is that there’s a big difference between designing for someone with a disability, and designing with someone with a disability,” she said.

Peter Horsely, the founder of Remarkable, a division of the Cerebral Palsy Alliance, and organiser of the workshop said enabled design for the whole community was something that needed to be taken into consideration early in the development process.

"It needs to be something that we think about day-to-day, rather than trying to do it at the end [of the design process] because you forgot to do it at the start".

The University’s Disability Services team offers a range of support for students with a disability, including access to the Assistive Technology Lab located in the Fisher library.

Our services include screen readers and magnifiers for vision impairment; voice recognition for learning, physical and cognitive impairments; and text-to-speech for learning and cognitive disabilities.

We also supply large print, braille and accessible PDFs for exams, as well as more-specific tools and support for individual students’ needs.

The University’s Disability Services Manager Dagmar Kminiak said advances in technology were constantly improving the usability of existing tools, and new technologies could help individuals offset the impacts of their condition on their study.

"The opportunities are exciting and endless," she said.

By Angela Wilcox-Watson, fourth-year Bachelor of Arts (Media and Communications).