Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Twist in the Path - Volunteering with TADQ

While searching for literature and possible contacts me and Margot came across TADQ - Technology Aids to the Disabled, Qld Inc which is a is a not-for-profit organisation and registered charity that provide technical support and solutions for people with disabilities and the frail aged in Queensland. Margot said "Oh! This looks really interesting. Why don't you try and contact them." So I did. The result was wonderful. I met their development officer on 16th September at their main office at Banyo, QLD. It was such a fruitful meeting.

TADQ strive to provide people with disabilities and frail aged with affordable assistive devices in a wide range - winches, toilet steps, fold-down shower seats, writing aids, bike modifications, slope boards, communication devices and sensory dens and more. They seek the help of volunteers to achieve develop these aids. These volunteers come from all over QLD representing diverse backgrounds such as building products, engineering, design, software design, promotion and web design. Most volunteers work from their own homes and in their own time on customized and dedicated projects for specific group or a single client. It seemed to me that their and my final targets are the same although mine is more towards enhancement of communication technologies - providing the disabled with easy to use and affordable assistive technologies.

I learned that TADQ works with a strong client base in QLD for whom they develop diverse technical aids. They also have the service of an Occupational Therapist (OT) who share her expertise on people with disabilities. There are number of technical volunteers working on number of projects and few of them are fond of social networking and gaming aspects. The development officer told me that networking of people with similar interests in this area is the cornerstone of building effective aids.  I also think engaging with these personnel will help me immensely to come up with an effective solution to enhance communications of the disabled people.

All the people at TADQ were very excited about the Makey-Makey kit as I have mentioned it in my emails. These days I am planning to develop a simple controller which can be attached to it that can emulate arrow keys and Enter key. My aim is to develop a simple game which can be played by two people using this controller. They really liked the idea and encouraged me to work on it. I hope I can develop this idea in to a more usable and generalizable technology with the help of TADQ. We wound up the session with a brief site tour on which I noticed that they also have a well equipped workshop to design and develop these aids.

I received set of applications to fill-out to be a volunteer for TADQ which will be an interesting experience for me. I will have the opportunity to work closely with people who are experts in the field and make a real contribution for the disabled community. Strong network which TADQ maintain will certainly help me to make my contribution worthwhile. Now at this moment I am going through this application filled with positive feelings...

Sunday, September 1, 2013

A Chat with an Innovator

I have been lucky to have another interesting chat with an inspiring person - Brett Paulson. He currently works as a computer modeller at the CSIRO. Being a quadreplegic his aims was not only to conquer the routine but to win the street which he has achieved successfully by developing a scooter! This scooter can be controlled by a quadriplegic person who is in a wheelchair. A ramp equipped sidecar provide the access to a wheelchair. Person can controll the scooter from this sidecar as all the controlls are mapped to it. He also maintains a website about sidecar and similar outfits:

I asked him about the development of this scooter. He has used his knowledge in mathematics and computer science to good effect with the help of his mates. I thought this would have been a industry oreinted technical approach. But, he said that it was more of an informal effort amongst the friends. He said they did not recieve any technological assistance from known technological bodies. This notion seems to be interesting as the control of the design entirly lies with the user of the device.

Brett with his scooter

Since my project deals with social networking and gaming aspects, I asked him if he is a frequent user of social networking sites or games. Surprisingly, he was not an enthusiast of those, although he uses email to good efefct to communicate. He mentioned that level of usage of such technologies vary highly upon the personal flavors of each person. As an example a disabled person may rely highly on video games to keep communications whereas another person is quite happy using email and/or telephone to maintain his social network.

He had some useful suggestions for my project also. According to him brainstorming sessions with the users of technology is highly important to get a proper understanding of the background. However, in my case it is difficult to do this as it is almost impossible at this stage to contact the target group because of the distance and cost. Therefore, a feasible solution would be to develop some design based on the literature and showcase it to the target group to recieve theri feedback. Then, it will be possible to make any changes to the design or in fact methodology. Brett noted that there are disabled people who are not aware of the options available. If they get to know them they might "want" to explore them. He said that making this awareness is an essential part of this kind of an endeavour.

Another important thing he mentioned is that it is a good practice to provide more control over design process to the people who will be using the technology as it encompassses sense of security amongst them. Simply: "I am going to use this. Let me build it my own way!". There are some highend designer kits available nowadays like Makey-Makey. However, it is still questionable that if they can be used from the scratch by a person with a disability. My opinion is that a designer is required to minimize the configurations done by the user once the technology is in place. Therefore, I beleive 'something' should be developed which then can be put in to the real context. Designer's task is to increase the flexibility of usage.

He noted that since my project focusses on the area of Groote Eylandt, I may be able to recieve support from engineers who are working in Manganese mines nearby. However, I doubt if they posses the expertise or more importantly time I might require in developing communication technologies. He suggested that tablet computers can be used to a good effect as they are highly popular devices amongst the disabled. He himslef an admirer of his own tablet PC. He mentioned that they are portable, lightweight and possess intuitive interfaces which aid them to communicate easily with minimal limb movements.

It was an inspiring chat with Brett which revealed number of unseen insights. A very big thank you goes to Brett in dedicating his time and effort to have a chat with us - my supervisor also joined! He was kind enough to show us his scooter which he parked at the entrance to the City Botanic Gardens. We had a nice walk with an inspiring character across the garden...