New Faculty Spotlight: Amy Hurst

Amy Hurst

The Department of Occupational Therapy would like to spotlight Associate Professor Amy Hurst, who joined the NYU OT community this semester.

Hurst holds a joint appointment with the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development and the Technology, Culture, and Society Department in the Tandon School of Engineering. She is also the director of NYU’s Ability Project, an interdisciplinary research space dedicated to the intersection of disability and technology.

In the Q&A below, Professor Hurst shares more about her background, expertise, and what it’s like to teach future OTs.

Can you tell me a little about your background and research interests?

My undergraduate degree is in Computer Science from the Georgia Institute of Technology. In my quest to understand the impact of the technology we were learning about, I pretty quickly became interested in accessibility and assistive technology. I went on to get my master’s and PhD in Human-Computer Interaction from Carnegie Mellon — most of my work then was focusing on computer access. There is a ton of accessibility software baked into personal computers, but not many people know how to actually configure it. After finishing my degree, I worked at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) for 8.5 years doing more accessibility research.

While at UMBC, you worked on a National Science Foundation-funded project involving 3D printers. What might people not know about 3D printing?

3D printing is not magic — it can be very frustrating, which is one of the main reasons that a lot of 3D printers gather dust. There is a lot of marketing selling the fanciful idea that you push a button and the machine just goes, but the reality is that there are a ton of other steps that need to happen first. And then, once the machine is actually printing, it doesn’t always work. For a lot of people who are starting out in 3D printing, that’s a surprise. But once you have individuals who can become expert operators, you can empower more people to use the printer.

How can 3D printers benefit people like clinicians and individuals receiving therapy?

One exciting area I have studied in my past work is creating 3D-printed assistive technologies that are customized to a user’s unique needs. Specifically, I’ve studied how clinicians and end-users can learn to design and print personalized grips that can go on walkers, crutches, pencils, forks, and more. One of the advantages of having these items made on a 3D printer is that therapists can reproduce models efficiently — creating a practical sustainability plan if the item gets lost or broken.

What misconceptions might folks have about the intersection of ability/disability and technology?

When designing technology for a large and diverse user group, it is important to create systems that are customizable to accommodate diverse abilities, habits, and preferences. These systems must be flexible as it is common for abilities, habits, and preferences to change (on both short and long timescales). When designing for diverse ability, it is important to remember that some users may be gaining function (in a rehabilitation context), losing function (due to a chronic illness or disability), or experiencing short-term changes in function (due to medication, fatigue, stress, or the weather). We must fully understand a target user group, their context, and experiences to design useful, accessible technology.

Can you tell me more about the NYU Ability Project and your director role?

One of the most exciting things about the Ability Project is that it really is an interdisciplinary collaboration across faculty and students in OT, Tisch, and Tandon. Getting this diverse group together to learn with and from each other is really incredible. That’s one of the things that really excited me about this opportunity at NYU.

This semester, I spent a lot of time on a project with the NYU Dentistry Oral Health Center for People with Disabilities. This is a new dental clinic specifically targeted toward folks with disabilities — which is an entirely new approach to providing dental services for individuals who cannot receive traditional care. We were focused on the waiting room experience, and specifically creating a multi-sensory room where people who are feeling some anxiety around going to the dentist can interact with soothing technology. We’ve been collaborating with folks who have expertise in autism and special education as well as those in dentistry. It’s really interdisciplinary and exciting.

What do you find is the most rewarding aspect of teaching future OT’s?

Teaching accessibility to students who have clinical experience is fantastic. It’s something I hadn’t experienced before — they’re coming into the class with hands-on, personal experience. They can share this perspective and their training with other students, which is very exciting.