What is a Disability Anyway?

I’m preparing to write a paper on this project and have been looking back over some of the research we collected and found a gem that I absolutely must share. During the last class we asked the UArts students to take some time to reflect on their experiences in this project and jot down a few thoughts. We gave them open ended prompts such as:

  • what did you learn from this experience
  • what were the difficulties and challenges
  • were there any surprises
  • what did you learn from your partner
  • what did you learn about yourself
  • what tools could be designed to support this project

One of the most insightful comments was written by Kevin Greenland who had worked with the ever ebullient Branden:

If it is attitude that enables or disables (and not the condition of some body part), then how many of us are disabled at times with a rotten attitude? And then by extension – how many of us disable each other with bad attitudes we project on each other, limiting who we each are and what is possible for each of us?

Thanks Kevin for this stimulating insight!

Branden and Kevin in one of their finer moments.

In an Exhibition!

Mitchell Wright checking out the Exhibit

We just exhibited the project at the Philadelphia Center for Architecture! The show is called “Green, Urban and Glocal” (A wordplay on local and global). The show features work from local architecture programs but because the University of the Arts has such a strong focus on “Green, Urban, & Glocal” we were invited into the show (even though we don’t have an architecture program). We put  up 3 posters showing large process photos from this project.

A few key quotes from the posters:

“This project is not about designing particular solutions to individual problems, but rather is about developing a system that empowers individuals with disabilities to solve their own issues.”

“This exhibit shares highlights from our process – unexpected moments where boundaries were dissolved. These are the real “final results,” the impactful ones, the ones that grow the seeds for a sustainable society that considers the needs of all.”

We also put up several other projects in the exhibit. Grad students showed their recent projects where they worked with the Department of Nursing Home Transition at Liberty Resources. The Juniors showed their recent “Benson Park” project where students engaged local residents in Kensington in a design process to strengthen their community by activating their neighborhood park.


For those that missed it, the exhibition continues thru March 2.

Exhibition: February 6 – March 2

Opening Reception: February 9, 5:30–7:30 p.m. 
Philadelphia Center for Architecture 
1218 Arch St, Philadelphia

Mitchell: my experience

My experience changed a lot throughout this project. I went from just trying to learn about electronics, a new medium for me, to eventually applying different ways of using electronics to make things easier for me in my apartment.

Along the way my project had a lot of twists and turns, but it allowed me to learn 3 different methods for solving the same problem. At first, Christine and I thought we would use the floor mat-switch method, but since I had a problem with flooding in my apartment we abandoned that idea.

Then, we were going to use servos to flick the light switch, but the PIR sensor (passive infrared/motion sensor) turned out to be a little too fussy and unreliable. So in the end we used PING sensors to measure the distance to my hands and then to trigger the light switch.

This final approach made the most sense in my new apartment. Even though it may not be the simplest solution, I did learn a lot, about electronics, other people, and myself too.

We had quite a few difficulties and challenges along the way: I moved from one apartment to another and so my environment changed during the project. I also think that some of the electronics could be made better for people with big hands since it is difficult for me.

My feelings about the class: I learned that each person is different and has their own way to solving problems, and each is unique and funny. Each one of us has our own way of bringing humor to the program too so it was never boring. I learned that I was a person that needed to learn more and to open my mind.

Reflection: Joe C & Michael B

Michael and Joe at final project presentation

Joe C
Being a part of this experience allowed me to to better understand the types of struggles that individuals with disabilities endure on a daily basis.This experience has provided me with insight for how to effectively utilize design psychology when building for individuals with disabilities, ultimately allowing me to be a better designer or maker in general. I have been enlightened by the amount of enthusiasm that Michael has put into the project. It was Michael’s enthusiasm that pushed me to be dedicated to completing this project.
I am happy with the results seeing now that the project is finished. The project works just as I had foreseen, if not better than I had expected. The reduction of physical and cognitive complexity that the Arduino camera mount provides is amazing. Michael is able to take photographs while in transit and they are quite good!

Michael demos with his camera

Michael B
This Arduino project allowed me to break out of my shell. We had a breakthrough sharing knowledge between each other. Each of us always had something to offer the other. There was a heightened sense of involvement and I felt as if the knowledge that I offered was supporting the project’s progression. I was thrilled by my son’s involvement with the Arduino project, seeing as he was learning completely new information surrounding Arduino and circuitry.
I think that this project is a perfect solution for other with disabilities to enrich their lives and give them the ability to take photographs. This Arduino project is a new beginning for the advancement of individuals with disabilities. Others see this project and they develop their own visions for what is possible with the use of Arduino and circuitry.

Branden Signing-Off

The Arduino for disabilities class at Liberty Resources has been a very motivating experience.  Getting to know everyone from Uarts and learning about the Arduino was very eye opening for me.  It is all about seeing the simple and realizing the possibilities you have to do bigger things.  I now realize that by learning how to do these simple things, I can increase my independence.  I never feel like you should ever stop learning because without knowledge you become complacent.  The knowledge that everyone from Uarts brought to the class is something that I really appreciate.  When you have great minds plus good resources and people, these ingredients can culminate to make something great.  If you have great people with great knowledge you can do a lot to help people.  Everyone I met from Uarts is geared to help.  And, just because the project is over doesn’t mean the friendships have to end. To make a long story short, It has been one big fun ride of knowledge and technology.

– Branden Franks

Bens’s Final

I recall my first conversation with Glenda being about how she is always bumping into everything with her chair, and how her son has to come over and fix the things she accidentally runs into.  After knowing Glenda for a bit I have seen it happen, but I wouldn’t put the blame on her.  Navigating a wheelchair like the ones I have seen at liberty seems tough, like parallel parking a hummer in a forest.

When I heard that Glenda wanted to make a turn signal for her chair I was very excited.  Not only was this a great project for its simple effective design and modest scope, but it also involves Glenda’s expertise in sewing.  I think it will improve her mobility outside as well.  Moving through streets like Walnut and Market is hard enough for me, the throngs of people move at a snails pace and are never courteously spaced.  If the turn signal can let the fast moving pedestrians know not to cut her off, and let the cars know that she intends to turn then all can move a bit more safely.

Glenda came in one day with several designs already planned, and we settled on the one that could be hung over the headrest of the chair.  This was a great design because it could be easily moved, would require no tampering with her chair, and could potentially be used on other chairs.

We started with orange nylon to serve as a bright structure, and vinyl to moderately cover electronic pieces so that rain would get them wet.  Glenda sewed the entire back structure which the turn signal lights would be mounted to.

I was working on soldering the lights to a board so that gave the LED’s some structure and made their pins easily accessible.  When they came together they are a structure which could be mounted easily to the final board.

Working with Marsha has been a very effective collaboration and I do hope she is inspired by this project to reapply her electronics knowledge toward another project someday.

Glenda’s final

I would like to thank Michael McAllister for the chance to be in this class. I would also like to thank the great partner I had. Ben was such a great help on this project. I learned a lot. My project will not only benefit myself, but it could be of good use to others also. I am almost sorry to see this class come to an end. I will miss getting together with everyone each week. I hope this is just the first of many more classes offered by The University of the Arts.

Last Class

We held our last class this past Saturday. I’d have to admit it was a bittersweet few hours. We shared our projects and prototypes with each other but it was all tinged with a sad sense of goodbye. Brandon burst out in the first few minutes “No, it’s not gonna end!” and we kidded that we had a truckload of tissue boxes available for the day…

Presentations at last class

Each team demonstrated their project either by showing a functioning prototype or by showing photos and video of the off-site installation.

Kevin and Brandon led off with their prototype showing wheelchair actuated switches (above) that would turn on and off Brandon’s lamp in his room. The electronics were functioning sporadically but Brandon with his over the top sensibilities later explained his full vision to eventually trigger head banging rock music with a light show and pyrotechnics and girls appearing in bikinis somehow … For now we will all be happy if the lamp turns on consistently … but they expect to continue development of their project. So more to follow…

Next Chiaying showed images and a video of her project installed at Marsha’s apartment. Their project has been in operation for the last 3 weeks. Marsha got out her acrylics and had customized her switches as well as helping with the overall concept development.

Chiaying fabricated her own switches

During the project Chiaying had noticed how much Marsha tended to customize and personalize her own belongings like the arm braces shown below –

Chiaying worked with Marsha to engage these instincts toward customizing to make the switches personalized. See photo below.

Personalized switch installed

The Arduino and a solid state relay were packaged in a plywood box with a plexi cover so Marsha could see the electronics.

Christine and Mitchell presented next. Their project also actuated a bedroom light for Mitchell except it is triggered by a Ping Sensor.

Mitchell actuates the Ping sensor

Then Michael and Joe presented their project. This was a knee actuated switch with an adjustable camera mount (built by moi) that allows Michael to take photos while driving his wheelchair.

And finally Ben and Glenda showed their project, a wheelchair accessory for signaling in traffic when her wheelchair is turning. While the electronics are completed they still have to assemble everything into the bright orange package that Glenda produced with her sewing skills.

At the end of class there was a bit of a food fest while each participant was separately interviewed regarding their experience and it’s impact. Marsha also decided to make a splash by surprising us all with her many obscure talents!

Glenda at her final interview

Surprise! Brandon has a few things to say...

By the close of the class each participant had also made a blog entry which will be posted soon and everyone looks forward to somehow continuing this project in the future…

Completing Michael’s Prototype

Our first mockup was more like a crude 3D sketch but it allowed us to begin to uncover many design constraints by stimulating conversation with Michael. What height should it be, can you see over it, how will you interact with it, when will it be in your way, is it uncomfortable, describe a scenario of how you would like to use it etc

Lots can be learned even from a crude mockup

We found out that the mechanism would have to swing or move at out the way whenever Michael needed to get out of the wheelchair to go to the bathroom, take a seat on a train, or go to bed.  This seems so obvious now but at the time it was not even on our radar and so this conversation was very valuable to us. We also learned that Michael preferred to use his Left eye and so we positioned the camera accordingly.

Positioning the camera to suit Michael

We adjusted the height and also checked for interference with his thigh. I bought a footswitch on a whim from an on-line catalog and we tried it out. Out original plan was to use several switches and have Michael would control these switches with his left hand. Michael REALLY liked the possibility of using his thigh to actuate the camera, so we continued in that direction.

We placed the footswitch next to Michael thigh

Now we had a firm direction but a lot to do. I wrapped Michael camera tightly in saran wrap and built a little box around it and poured a 2 part liquid plastic (Smoothon: Smooth Cast 320) into the box. This plastic hardened around the camera forming an exact pocket for the camera to nest. This would make it easy for Michael to accurately position the camera each time he needed to reinstall it.

A molded pocket to exactly fit the camera

The I had to begin machining alum parts to replace the wood structure and Renshape pieces.

My favorite machine!

Joe worked on the electronics and the programming. We only had a week remaining so there was a lot of pressure.

Joe working the electronics

Nearly functioning

We mounted the servo and completed the structure and soon had a working prototype!

The servo moves a cam down to snap the actuation button on the camera

There were lots of small mechanical details to resolve.  Eventually we had a working model that looked like this:

Back side (user side) and bottom view

We asked Michael if there was a slogan that would be used at this protest and he told us “Free Our People”. The organization behind the protest is called Adapt. Armed with those 2 bits of information a Senior ID student from UArts named Mark Scafini volunteered to stay that night to make a laser cut plaque to embellish and personalize Michael’s camera mount. Thanks Mark!

With the laser cut slogan to personalize it

Now all that remained was to mount the structure and wire it and then drive it to Michael who was patiently waiting in order to make his train to Washington DC! We had to motor in the wheelchair across town to 7th and Market from UArts on Broad St.

Joe proudly motors up Broad St.

I test some adjustments along the way

Experiencing the city from inside a wheelchair can really change your perception.

Joe pauses to consider his options here ...

A few more shots of our journey:

Finally we arrive. Michael was thrilled with our work but he had to race off to catch a train  and get to the protest!

Michael's first moment with his chair mod

Our Collaborative Design Process: Marsha and ChiaYing

We started the individual projects in August. After learning what Arduino can do, Marsha showed a great interest in producing a functional object that improves her daily life. Therefore, our first discussion focused on her wheelchair, which plays an important role in her routine.

Marsha tends to keep everything she could possibly need on her wheelchair and within her reach so that she’s prepared for most situations.

Marsha travels equipped!

Then, our conversation moved to Marsha’s living environment and we discussed what a typical day is like for her. I even went to visit her in her apartment to really understand the daily routines and her environment (check out the blog entry Marsha and Chiaying to get a better sense of her apartment!).

Several problems surfaced as potential design opportunities. Marsha showed me four places in her apartment where she struggles to switch lights on and off:

1. The light above the stove. She has to use a stick to reach the switch.

2. The light in the hall way. There are two switches to this one light and they seem to work intermittently but Mike solved this problem during our visit.

3. The lamp in the guest room. The connection of the wall switch to the outlet is broken. It’s difficult for Marsha to reach the switch on the lamp itself.

4. Switching off the light when going to bed. This is a particularly big problem because it means that Marsha has to get out of her wheelchair and into bed in the dark. This can be dangerous since falling can result.

Of these four Marsha identified the fourth as the biggest problem. So she quickly sketched out a plan view of her bedroom for me:

The switch by the door controls the lamp by the TV. She has to enter her room in the dark and get over to the lamp by her bed in the dark since she can’t reach the switch by the door from bed. The same problem occurs but in reverse when she gets out of the room in the morning when it’s still dark.

When we were trying to resolve a final concept, Marsha said,” I want the design to be as simple as possible.” I completely agreed with her. As a collaborative project and her first time working with Arduino, overwhelming technology would not be necessary.  Considering Marsha’s artistry, I suggested we make some of the parts we need, such as switches, a lamp shade, and the case for the Arduino board. Marsha was excited about the idea, and said, ” I’d like to make my room more homey!”

Working collaboratively, we analyzed the problem and what we are capable of, and it led us to a practical yet unique solution.

Hanging Lamp by Bed

We decided to replace the lamp by her bed, so we don’t have to go into the wall and change the existing wiring. Marsha can have lighting if she wants to read in bed. We chose to hard-wire everything rather than use ultrasonic sensors because of the durability and easier programming.

One on/off switch will be by the door and another one will be on the small desk that’s attached to Marsha’s bed. The green circles in the sketch indicate the places we can make our own decoration for the lighting device.

A rough sketch of our concept.

Bedside Table

– This small desk provides Marsha a lot of convenience.