Inclusive design improves access to
mobile technology for all users
By Lena Rubisova, fourth-year Graphic Design student
Over at 205 Richmond Street West, researchers are keeping busy with developing new technology and tools by combining design thinking strategies, and engineering know-how. An example of this kind of forward thinking is Tecla, a technology that helps break down accessibility barriers for mobility impaired mobile phone users. It is being developed by Mauricio Meza and Jorge Silva, researchers at OCAD University's Inclusive Design Research Centre (IDRC). With support from the IDRC, their start-up Komodo Open Lab is working on solving problems faced by people with physical disabilities.
Tecla connects an input device such as an ability switch to Tecla Shield, which translates commands through a app that allows users with limited mobility to operate a smart phone.
The Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD U is a research and development centre that fosters an international community of designers, engineers and researchers that work towards a more inclusive design model across a variety of fields. Formerly known as the Adaptive Technology Resource Centre at the University of Toronto, the IDRC came to OCAD U in 2010, and has since then been developing the role of design thinking and processes in this kind of research. Komodo came to OCAD U after the IRDC's move from U of T, where both Silva and Meza did their graduate studies, and has since received much support from the OCAD U community.
Tecla has been in development for about a year and a half. Silva and Meza started working on the specs, but it was with the transfer of the IDRC from U of T to OCAD U, the project was really able to take off. Tecla is a combination of tools that provide access to electronic devices by users with mobility impairments. To date, the tools consist of the Tecla Shield which connects to a joystick or button used by the mobility device, and the Tecla App which can be installed on an Android phone. The app picks up data sent from the Shield, allowing use of the mobile device in a way not previously possible for people with physical disabilities. With sponsorship from Rogers Communications Inc., Silva and Meza have been able to provide six users with varying degrees of physical disability with the Tecla Shield and a phone to install the Tecla App on. The app scrolls through the phone's features and keyboards, allowing the user to select what they want using only the joystick or button tool. This allows for such tasks as text messaging, a previously impossible task which many of us take for granted. With the user testing period ended in November, Tecla will be available for pre-order online. "There is a lot of stigma surrounding using dedicated assistive devices, instead of using and carrying the kind of phone that everyone can recognize," says Silva, of the social benefits of the tool. Developments such as Tecla, and many of the other projects at the IDRC, are helping break down the stigma associated with physical disabilities by making previously impossible to use technology more accessible.
Komodo Open Lab is a "not-just-for-profit" (meaning they seek to generate profit, but also work on projects that benefit people) start-up that develops technology to facilitate the lives of people with disabilities. All their projects are open source, which means that they share the code and engineering of their projects. This creates a broad, collaborative scope to the projects and allows users and developers to comment, adapt and enhance the technologies. "The goal of these user-driver initiatives is to scratch their own itch," says Jorge Silva, Komodo's co-founder and Technical Lead in a TEDx Talk from October 2010. So far, having the project remain open source has meant that the majority of suggestions to the software are from people who are not as familiar with the technical aspects, but can help improve the coding. An interesting addition to Tecla's hardware came from a group of mechanical engineering students from the University of British Columbia who used the open source nature of the project as the basis for a course. The class helped expand Tecla's capability to include e-readers that are otherwise difficult to manage for people living with ALS.
Tecla is just one of the many exciting projects in place at the IDRC, demonstrating OCAD U's leadership in developing inclusive design solutions for information and communication systems. Other projects of the IDRC include the Fluid Project, Fluid Engage, CulturAll, Stretch, FLOE, AEGIS, SNOW and many others. To learn about these, and find more open resources promoting accessible information and communication, visit http://idrc.ocad.ca/.