VT assistant professor works to include disabled people in products meant for them

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BLACKSBURG, Va. (WFXR News) – A Virginia Tech assistant professor is working to include people with disabilities in the process of making technology for them.

Technology has the power to change the way a person with a disability lives, from things like pacemakers to wheelchairs to prosthetic limbs.

Dr. Ashley Shew is an assistant professor at Virginia Tech. She recently got a National Science Foundation career grant to study how people with disabilities use technology meant to help them.

“For a long time non-disabled people have been regarded as the experts on disabled people and part of this project is to say, ‘you know who’s the expert about disability technology? It’s disabled people,” said Dr. Shew.

Dr. Shew has multiple disabilities including a prosthetic leg.

“People were very sad that I had to get an amputation, but for me, my cancer was so big in my leg that was the best thing to do. I don’t have any regrets about it,” said Dr. Shew, who lost her leg during her battle with a rare bone cancer.

“I have 2 little kids who I’ll get to see grow up. So it’s a happy thing.”

She has hearing loss, neurotoxicity and something she calls chemo brain (cognitive effects that makes her forgetful) from her cancer treatments. She also has Crohn’s disease.

She says people who make the products like prosthetics and hearing aids, might know a lot about that item, but there are other aspects they usually aren’t considering.

“They might not know as much about being stared at in public and how to manage that. How to get over the stigma that you receive as an apparently disabled person in public. How to deal with the weird questions you will get when you go to the grocery store from people you have never met before,” Dr. Shew said.

“Those are the sorts of things you can learn from disabled people.”

She says the designers from these products shouldn’t build something without consulting the person who would use it.

“It means that they don’t know that their product is doomed to fail already. So having that disabled expertise helps you create better designs and start from a better place,” said Dr. Shew.

Joshua Earle is a Graduate Associate for the grant. He’s working to bridge the gap between the people with disabilities who rely on technology and the IT professionals who maintain and fix those devices.

“When a body and a piece of technology come together, things break down,” Joshua Earle said.

Earle doesn’t identify as disabled but is an ally to help make them the experts in the developing of technology meant for them.

“Those voices are getting lost and I think they can give us a really valuable way to produce better technology and hopefully a better world,” said Earle.

Graduate Assistant for the grant Damien Williams agrees that people with disabilities should be a part of the process to make technology designed to help them.

“Let them direct the construction of the technologies. Because no one knows better what someone needs than the person who needs it,” Williams said.

Williams is studying how biases get built into technology.

“That research is about saying well here is exactly how, in these specific instances, those biases, those prospectives, those expectations, and assumptions are going to produce harms for people,” Williams said.

“Here’s exactly how those people are telling you that what we’ve built does a disservice to their daily lives.”

The grant supports all the components of an academic career including research, teaching and service and outreach.

One component of the research includes reading stories about how people with disabilities interact with different technologies.

“We read almost all narratives by disabled people. I don’t really care to hear what non-disabled people have to say about disabled people because those are the stories we’ve already heard,” said Dr. Shew.

Dr. Shew says she wants to take those stories and turn them into materials for designers to use when making products for people with disabilities.

The grant also allows Dr. Shew to do community outreach. This year they did a STEM-ability Camp for high schoolers with disabilities to come check out the campus. They got to sleep overnight in a dorm to see what accommodations the University could provide. There was also a session for their parents to see what resources are available.

Dr. Shew also teaches a Technology and Disabilities course which centers around the stories people tell as their lives relate to technology.

In her class she has students take ADA (American Disability Act) checklist and measure things to see if they’re compliant.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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