Visiting Marsha

My first visit to Marsha's apartment

Hello, I am Chiaying. Marsha and I have been partners since the first class. In the past several weeks, we learned about the basics of electronics and programming, and now the two of us are working on a project that’s specifically for Marsha. The process of incorporating Arduino allowed us to consider what her real needs are and explore different solutions to one problem.

Mike and I made a trip to Marsha’s apartment on Tuesday, September 6th, 2011. In addition to getting a better idea of the environment, I was really excited to visit Marsha’s place out of genuine curiosity. She appears to be very independent and have a sophisticated lifestyle. I appreciate her personality and her as an artist; I simply think she is a really cool person!

Marsha's neighborhood

Marsha's Livingroom

Although Marsha’s building is accessible for wheelchairs, her apartment is not an accessible apartment. Therefore, she has to do a lot of tasks sideways, and she has gotten used to these inconveniences.

Marsha sits sideways to use her sink

To turn the stove light on Marsha has become skilled with one of her sticks

The hallway and the doorways are barely wide enough for her wheelchair to go through. It took Marsha a lot of practice to get good at moving around in her apartment.

One big problem that Marsha has is that she has to back into her bedroom from the hallway in the dark. So there are two problems here. First, because her apartment is not designed to be accessible the hallway is very narrow and it is impossible to turn left directly into her bedroom.  So instead she has to turn right and then back into her bedroom. See below –

It's a very tight fit thru the doorway into her bedroom

What makes this worse is that she has to do it in the dark! This is because she cannot just hop out of bed and flip the overhead light off like most of us do. So instead she backs into her room and then has to wheel over to her bed in the dark and only then switch on a hanging light. This light is close enough to her bed to turn off once she is in bed. Wow – It’s one of those tasks that noone ever thinks about – how does a person in a wheelchair turn off the lights and get into bed! Marsha has had to develop a lot of patience in order to live in a world that is not designed for her. She really doesn’t complain about things like this and it was only through conversation that we uncovered this problem.

The hallway corner has gotten been pretty banged up

Doing field research like this also allows other influences and even accidental findings to affect the design process. For instance, Marsha’s apartment is full of interesting objects and artwork she has created. Marsha has this tray near her bed that was overloaded with nic-knacks. I picked up the square that says “HI” (see photo below). She said a friend had knitted it but that she knits too and could make something like it. Later it inspired me to consider that Marsha might be able to knit or make some parts of this project herself. So I think her artistry may eventually become a factor in what we create together.

Even something as unassuming as the red and white knitted "HI" can be inspiration

Some of Marsha's artwork

Self Portrait - beautifully done!

So the trip to Marsha’s house gave me a much better understanding of her and her life. Seeing the environment and her artwork definitely helped me to imagine our project. I am excited to collaborate with her on designing a bedroom lighting system that is perfect for her functionally and aesthetically.

4 thoughts on “Visiting Marsha

  1. Chiaying,

    I spoke with Mike about the lighting issue you mention above and I think that there might be a simple solution that would allow Marsha to control her lights from her chair. Lutron makes a product called RadioRA ( that I believe allows for existing light fixtures to be retrofit with remote portable switches. Lutron is located in Coopersburg, PA, and they might have some ideas. I also know a couple of people in town who specialize in home automation I could put you in touch with. It’s worth investigating.

    Great work you’re doing.


    • Hi Jeb,

      This project is really about teaching some basic skills in using a microcontroller to a group of people with disabilities. Solving this lighting problem with a microcontroller might not be the simplest or cheapest way to solve the lighting problem, but it is a great way for Marsha to learn about the Arduino microcontroller.

  2. I’m not talking about using arduino or micro controllers for the lighting. Lutron has ready made products that can turn any receptacle or light switch into a remotely controlled device. I realize that the project is about micro controllers but after hearing about some of the nighttime struggles with getting into bed in the dark I thought I would mention the Lutron product.

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