During the past year, through a collaboration between Steinhardt’s Department of Occupational Therapy, Tisch’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), and Poly’s Integrated Digital Media Program (IDM), the ABILITY Lab has become a meeting point for individuals with different expertise to develop assistive technologies for people with different disabilities. Located at the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering‘s Metrotech Center in Brooklyn, the Lab offers students a place to explore and enhance technologies that can address the needs of people with disabilities. In an interview with SpOTlight, Anita Perr, clinical associate professor at the Department of Occupational Therapy talks about the ABILITY Lab’s current projects and its future plans.
What is the ABILITY Lab and how was it started?
The ABILITY Lab is a place to learn about, explore, and research assistive technology used by people with disabilities. Faculty, students, and researchers can connect with each other and work on their own projects or on ongoing ABILITY Lab projects. The ABILITY Lab started officially last year, but we’ve been running courses and working on assistive technology grants for about 10 years. It started with a relationship with Marianne Petit, associate arts professor at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts in the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) where artists and designers learn about and create interactive art and technology. Marianne was interested in how people with disabilities function and interact with technology, so we offered a one-time course on assisted technology. That course has been running ever since. When the NYU Poly School of Engineering came on board, we expanded the course and applied for and received funding for the ABILITY Lab.
Could you tell us a bit about the current projects in place?
We conduct courses at the ABILITY Lab, one of which is called “Developing Assistive Technology,” which is open to students across all of the schools at NYU. Groups of students collaborate with outside organizations to develop technologies for people with disabilities. Each of the groups that are set up are a mix of those students who have different professional backgrounds and different areas of interest and expertise. While they work on their projects, the course covers a variety of AT-related topics. We have five groups in the class right now. One of the groups is developing a device called “Gyrocafe,” which will help people who use walkers to carry things without spilling them. Another group is working with the Strivright School in Brooklyn – a preschool for children who are deaf or hearing impaired where they are developing a sensory room. The group in our class is developing an interactive device that will be used for practicing balance, reaching, and other motor skills. Other projects include apps for children who have difficulty producing the “R” sound, a portable and easy-to-carry ramp for places that don’t have curb-cuts, and a game app to improve memory and planning.
Could you tell us a bit about other activities at the Lab, like the project with autistic children?
TechKids Unlimited, a not-for-profit tech-based educational organization, runs a program in the ABILITY Lab on Sundays where kids ages 7-18, many of whom are diagnosed with autism, learn to use technology to make media, games, video, models, etc. NYU faculty and students help facilitate the classes as counselors and instructors. Using a strength-based approach, the kids learn skills that may develop into career interests and expertise. They also work on other skills, such as socialization and communication while they work and have lunch together.
What are the future goals for the ABILITY Lab?
This spring, students from NYU Tisch’s ITP and NYU Poly’s IDM will continue to work with the ABILITY Lab on projects related to their own master’s theses. We also plan to have a competition to offer seed money to students interested in developing a new project or working on an existing project. Our occupational therapy students will have the opportunity to receive small grants to act as clinical resources to the students working on projects. We will be using this year to apply for grants and continue to build the program.
Now that the ABILITY Lab is here and we are building an institutional history, we look forward to continuing projects from semester-to-semester. The information that students learn and their projects in class will be shared on our website so that other people can take a look at what we have done and use that to do their own work. We really want to foster the relationship between people in different schools in our own University along with the people with disabilities and researchers in the broader community so we can push the field forward.