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.

Working with Michael 1: Wheelchairs, Cameras and Protest Marches

So Michael B. came to UArts on Sun Sep 4 to work with Joe and me. It’s a bit of a big deal for him to get all the transportation arranged to do this. He also had to bring his son Luke and his attendant Butch.

Butch, Luke, Michael and Joe at UArts (L to R)

Michael loves to take photographs and is going to Washington D.C. in a few weeks to protest for disability rights. He says they will march to the White House. He says laughing that they go expecting to get arrested, but I’m not sure just how much he is kidding. The march is a National Action by a group called Adapt. He would love to be able to photograph the march from his wheelchair, offering a first person point of view of the protest. Unfortunately, Michael had a stroke and so does not have much use of the right side of his body. So he cannot drive his wheelchair and take a photo at the same time as he has to keep his left hand on the throttle/joystick of his wheelchair at all times. So our challenge is to help him figure out a way to accomplish this. Yikes…

We started by just asking him to handle the camera so we could understand that a little better. In the photos below you can see how awkward this is for him. First, the camera is designed for right handed people and he is now left-handed. He cannot reach across the camera body to touch the zoom nor the shutter release button.

Fingers can’t reach all the way across

As he struggles to use the camera he blocks the lens in one position, gets into some really awkward hand positions and then finds a way to use the camera but only with it turned sideways.

reaching the button …  but blocking the lens
awkward!   plus he can’t see the screen
The only way …  is sideways 

So we began discussions to get his input on where he would want the camera to be,how he would use it, and other needs. For one thing he has to be able to get the camera out of his way to get in and out of the chair. We then begin dismantling his chair and measuring spacing around his body.

dismantling chair

establishing clearances

After a few hours in the shop we have something roughed out.

The beginning of the first mockup

Meanwhile Joe has been working on the programming for the Arduino.

First mockup of the electronics

The notion is that we will use a switch to actuate a servo motor that will rotate an arm down onto the camera and press the shutter release button. This is very ambitious and we don’t have much time to actually make it work.

Fingers crossed …

Our Trip to Mitchell’s Apartment

Hi! I’m Christine, one of the UArts design students participating in the Arduino for Disabilities Research Project. I have been working with Mitchell during classes, and now we are developing a project, using the Arduino, that will allow Mitchell to turn his bedroom light off and on from his bed. There may be simpler ways to turn off the light but the real point of the project is for Mitchell to develop his Arduino skills. Turning the light off is a big issue in that getting from his wheelchair and into bed is already a difficult task but on top of that Mitchell has to do it in the dark since he can’t turn his light off once in bed.

Today, Mike, Kevin, and I took the bus to visit Mitchell in his apartment, to check out the space we will be working with for his Arduino project, and to learn more about his daily life.

When we first arrived, Mitchell was watching Martha Stewart on the cooking channel.

Mitchell keeping himself up to date on the latest recipes.

We have already learned in class that Mitchell loves to cook, so we took a look at his kitchen while we were there. He keeps everything he needs on the lower 2 shelves, for easy reach. He even has open space under the sink so that he can roll right up to it in his wheelchair.

Mitchell's kitchen

While we were at Mitchell’s, we noticed that many items were kept at his chair’s height, including: the TV and its controls, his computer desk, his drafting table, kitchen items, shelving in his bedroom, laundry.

While there we discovered that Mitchell’s apartment floods during heavy rain, which we’ve had a lot of lately. This means we won’t be able to use floor mats with pressure switches in them as we originally planned. So we might work instead with a PIR (Passive Infra Red motion sensor) as a switch on the wall or bedside.

The water line can be seen along the bottom of the leg panel. This steered us away from placing any electronics on the floor.

While Mitchell showed us his apartment, we learned that he was a crew star, and has won many awards for rowing.

Mitchell, crew champion!

He likes to exercise his upper body, using an over-the-door exercise apparatus. He demonstrated this for us, and it is not easy! (I tried it, unsuccessfully).

Mitchell working on his upper body strength, using his exercise apparatus.

Mitchell also enjoys photography, and was taking a few pictures during our visit.

Mitchell and I sharing laughs while looking at pictures.

This trip confirmed the value of Field Research in the design process. Visiting Mitchell’s space allowed us to make several unexpected discoveries which will definitely inform decisions for his Arduino project, as well as gave us insight into his interests and day-to-day life. This information may color certain design decisions further along…

Who says you can't have a good time while doing research?


Branden and Kevin

Mind Meld

Branden is a Leo. I am a Pisces. But despite our differences, we have managed to learn the basics of electronics and circuit building, familiarize ourselves with the Arduino microcontroller, grapple with the basics of computer programming, and even become friends. Working with electronics and the Arduinio has presented some challenges; finding the dexterity to build tiny circuits and conceptualizing the breadboard being the most difficult. In the end, the occasional frustrations we have experienced while using the Arduino always seem to disappear with the excitement of getting it to work. Throughout the last few weeks Branden has “seen the simple” and now “wants to go big!” He is full of ideas about how he might use the Arduino to make his life simpler, more comfortable, or just plain cooler.

Mitchell and Christine

Mitchell and I have been working together for the past 3 weeks! When we first asked Mitchell why he decided to take the Arduino For Disabilities class, he said he loves learning new things, and his mind is always open. He is a smart guy and has shown a lot of  determination. I’ve had to learn to just be patient at times and wait for him to shape and express his ideas which are usually very thoughtful. Like the others in this class Mitchell doesn’t mind discussing his disability. We worked together for weeks before it ever came up that he has lymphedema in his legs. Despite this he is really quite a cheerful person.

Mitchell’s first brainstorming ideas involved using the Arduino to control an annoying fire alarm on the ceiling of his apartment that seems to go off for no reason. It was an eye opener for many of us in this class to consider that fire-alarms are totally our of reach for anyone that uses a wheelchair. Anyway it was great to hear that he was beginning to imagine how the skills he would learn in this class might later be applied to his own life. 

As we started diving into the circuitry and Arduino programs, Mitchell explained that it’s sometimes stressful to get the Arduino to work, but that he does enjoy the physical aspect of being able to control the electronics through touch. I will have to remember this as a design constraint when we start developing his project. At this point his broadest vision is to make his apartment “more 21st century, with lights and music controlled by touch, something that would make people say ‘How did you do that’?”

Class 2: photoresistors, dissolving space and the Magic Wand …

Everyone returned for the second class except Michael. He participated so much in the first class that I’m not too worried about him.  So it looks like we have 5 committed participants: Marsha, Branden, Mitchell, Michael and Glenda. Though we didn’t select or filter participants in any way we have ended up with 5 people people that use wheelchairs.

This class started with a review of what we covered last week and then I introduced the “Photoresistor” which is a low cost sensor. It detects presence by sensing changes in light hitting its surface. So the movement of your hand can be detected and allows you to operate switches that turn on devices without needing to touch anything, so it’s a bit magical.

Here’s what a photoresistor looks like:

Photoresistor. Electrical resistance increases with an decrease in light.

Each team wired a photosensor into a voltage divider circuit. While this is not particularly a blog to share the technology it is worth while to see the technology to understand what the challenge is here. It requires good vision, fine motor skills, a bit of logic and some patience.

The Photoresistor wired into a voltage divider circuit

Another view of the circuit

I noticed that some of the participants got up really close to see their circuit so the photo above is kind of a view from their perspective. As design researchers we want to develop empathy for the folks we are studying and really try to see and even experience from their perspective as best as we can. I mean that quite literally and in this case it is curious how beautiful and sculptural the electronics become when viewed up close. The upper photo is the view that we have of the electronics and the lower photo is the view that many folks in wheelchairs have. Quite a difference.

OK, just one more close-up of the electronics:

Photoresistor as sculpture

OK, enough on the electronics … back to the people …

Here’s Branden in a pose I saw him in frequently – head down and on or nearly on the table.

Branden getting into it

Marsha and Chiaying always worked on Marsha's lap

Mitchell working with Christine tends to sit bolt upright

Brigid and Glenda. Glenda is always focused but keeps to her personal space.

The scale of the electronics and the precision required to handle them drew me to photograph everyone’s hands at work. These photos become quite telling not just in terms of required dexterity and precision but also as a reflection of the barriers that are dissolving between people:

Intertwined - Christine and Mitchell

One composition - Chiaying and Marsha well coordinated

Personal space dissolving

Mitchell's big hands dwarf the electronics

Teamwork - Chiaying and Marsha. Marsha leans into it.

Eventually we swopped out the Photoresistor for a FSR (Force Sensitive Resistor) that you squeeze to actuate a switch.

Mitchell debugging a circuit that uses an FSR (the piece he's squeezing)

By the end of class there was quite a sense of accomplishment and the ever ebullient Branden once again could hardly contain himself:

So Proud - Branden holds up his project for the camera

At the close of each class we debrief a bit and here are Glenda’s comments from today:

Mike: “So how was it today Glenda … you came a little late and it might have been hard to step in”?

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Glenda: “Yes and I really wasn’t gonna come, cause I got started so late … the elevators wasn’t working … kinda frustrated and I was gonna go back home … and I said well … I’m not a quitter, i might as well go to class … i’m gonna be late … but … umm …I have to go get my Magic Waandd (laughter)  … so I came to class”.

(Glenda continues) “So today was um really interesting. It took us a little time to get ours working too but it did work. I really can’t wait to start using this, it’s gonna make my life a whole lot better.

A lot of the switches in my house is like high up. So I use a reacher now to turn everything on. My grandson lives with me. So he likes to play with the reacher. Calls it his monster. So whenever I need it I have to tell him “go get the monster” … so um … now i don’t have to give it to him [to play with], he can have it … so I can turn everything on with this. It’s gonna be … make my life a whole lot easier.

Every day now is like a challenge to me. Been in this chair for 5 years. Seems like every day is something different. Even the things I do over and over again. Everyday is like – I did this yesterday but why is it so hard for me again today. So this is gonna be like my magic wand”.

Class 1

This first class was tremendous and I hope I can convey a small taste of the effort, excitement, and consequent joy that we all shared. The tasks were to start relationships, build trust and deliver the technical content. This was facilitated by a gentle humor and by dropping big expectations.

In Class 1 we taught simple circuits, switches and introduced the Arduino itself. In one of those delicious moments of unexpected insight it dawned on me last night that the Arduino was nothing more than a switch. Wow. It can’t get much simpler. OK, it’s a very complex switch, but a switch none-the-less. A switch that can be programmed to close under conditions that we choose. This actually seemed to make sense and be digestable and help to structure the class. Explaining things in simple terms is always a good challenge.

Here’s what the Arduino looks like so that you can see the complexity that these folks are facing:

the Arduino Uno

The class had to start with some paperwork as we had to get approvals for photos but also to establish some baselines regarding familiarity and use of technology for each participant. Dr. Elaine Yuen from Thomas Jefferson University is helping with the research.

Elaine completing a survey with Michael

We started with a bit of discussion about the objectives of this class.

Class discussion

We then went on to circuits. The simplest circuit is a battery with an LED. Just handling these components was so special and amazing that the participants started photographing it!. I knew they were engaged which goes a long way to overcoming obstacles.

Mitchell with a simple LED circuit, Marsha and Branden photographing

Marsha and Branden absorbed and enthralled

We then used jumpers with alligator clips to create an extended circuit that ran all the way around the table pushing the definition of a circuit.

Glenda, Branden and Marsha building a large circuit

This very easily led into switches. Manual switches. Opening and closing the circuit via the alligator clips

Marsha using alligator clips as a switch

Branden watches the Frankenstein switch closely.

And we also did some circuit diagramming. Joe, a student in the Multi-Media program at UArts, was my assistant teacher for the day and he made the diagrams.

Joe at the board

Then everyone was asked to use a breadboard and build a circuit of their own – this is when the teams started to congeal. The UArts students aided where needed.

Branden and Kevin immediately bonded!

Joe and Michael

Michael had a stroke a very years back and so the right side of his body doesn’t work so well. His excitement was overwhelming though at times. We were all shocked when he would blurt out something beyond what had been taught such as “is this like using a variable resistor to control the voltage”? He would immediately look puzzled and say “woah – where did that come from”? It was as though this class was stimulating some parts of his memory that he did not recognize. This was obviously a very smart man with a lot of technical knowledge some of which must be inaccessible to him. This exciting moment was also tinged with the sad awareness that we as a society marginalize capable and intelligent people like Michael everyday. I wonder – if this is just Class 1 how much more I have yet to learn from these folks in the course of this project …

Mitchell and Christine

It took them a while to find each other ... but this is Chia-Ying and Marsha.

Ben and Glenda

By the close of class everyone had used a breadboard and wired a circuit. Teams were formed and each team opened Arduino and ran a very simple program (Blinky). They then modified the program and saw their own results.

We don’t expect anyone to be able to repeat all this but it was simply a first exposure. To calm the nerves I asked each of them to just watch and not expect themselves to remember anything. “Just let it pass thru you. Some little tiny part will stick without trying”. Then we’ll build on that. Fear can be such an obstacle to learning, and there is so much fear around technology and math. These are very brave souls and it will be interesting to see at the next class how much actually did stick …

Oh, Branden was just soooo excited that I have to include a shot showing his boyish joy over today’s accomplishments:

Yo Branden!

And Chia-Ying will hate me for including this, but here is “the timid one” expressing her deepest emotions:

"Say cheese and smile"

The IceBreaker

I received a grant in Feb to work with UArts’ (the University of the Arts in Philadelphia) design and art students to do qualitative research to explore what it would take to teach a  sample of 5 people with various disabilities to program and use an open source micro-controller called the Arduino. Some interesting questions beyond the teaching and learning issues are emerging as this project  continues to shape – can this tool (the micro-controller) really increase a person’s sense of independence, will it continue to be used after we are long gone, and how will working with people with disabilities affect me and my students i.e. how might we be changed…

In terms of recruiting folks for the project there’s been great reception. I have more students than I originally hoped for and more people with disabilities interested too. We all gathered today to meet each other and introduce the project in a small event we called The IceBreaker. Each UArts student also created a demo to show an example of what a micro-controller can do.

Introducing ourselves at the IceBreaker

Only four out of eight people with disabilities showed up … but we continued anyway. The UArts students each did their demo and there were some beautiful moments as I witnessed divergent worlds intersecting.

Michael and Joe getting to know each other

Michael was so curious and a bit amazed that any of us would be at all interested in helping someone with a disability. He stated that before he had his stroke he really only cared about one thing: m-o-n-e-y! Evidently he was quite a successful businessman and I think he said he owned 3 different businesses. He was so genuine and sincere and thankful to us. It will be interesting to see how our relationships develop over the course of the project…

Christine gives a demo to the group

Brigid’s Demo using a Ping sensor and a servo motor

Branden, Marsha, Kyle, Michael B (standing) and Mitchell in discussion

It felt like quite a successful day. The group seems very interested and not too intimidated by the technology. Hopefully everyone shows up for the first class…