The purpose of a research should be to advance humanity. The ultimate question we should ask ourselves is that "Can my research help people?" I was searching for an opportunity to do so.
I am happy about the background work I have done so far. I have made connections with makerspaces, volunteers and disability services organizations. So I was in search to start a project. An effort to start a collaborative project to design hardware devices for students with intellectual disabilities did not go according to the plan. One of my supervisors and myself was searching for uni students to take on this project as one of their course requirements. We could not, however, find any student in the current semester. So, I wrote to Endeavour Foundation - which is a not-for-profit organization that aims to improve the quality of life of people with disabilities. I have known the Development Manager (let's call himTom) there who has been working with our uni in few projects. I wrote to him inquiring about possible projects. He replied:
"Hi Ravihansa, Nice to hear from you. Happy to meet and discuss ideas. What does next wed afternoon look like, say 1:30pm at uni?"
I obliged. Then he wrote to me again next day:
"Thinking through your request for ideas, I met with a gentleman yesterday whose daughter has been diagnosed with the below (Rett Syndrome). His daughter is now 10, but we got talking about VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments) and online environments and I wonder if there is something here that might lead to some hardware type development? In particular, people diagnosed with Rett syndrome effectively lose use of their hands. Thoughts? A potential google glass!!?? Have fun reading"
We had a group meeting around this topic: two people from Endeavour and one of my supervisors. We discussed firstly about the condition of this girl (let's call her Ann). She has lost her hand movement abilities and much of the verbal communication abilities. Her father is keen to explore accessible technologies so his child can easily communicate. Ann has the ability to understand, let's say operations of a computer and workings of software applications. She lacks the ability access a computer with her limited motor movements.
We talked about designing hardware devices that can ease access to communication technologies for Ann and for other persons experiencing similar difficulties. Hardware devices that can ease access to communication technologies such as computers, laptops and mobile devices or even devices that can help day-to-day communication are likely outcomes of the project. Wearable devices, touch pads, push button controllers, headbands, can be possible ideas. These devices will be designed keeping in mind the individual requirements. Low cost materials such as microcontroller kits (like Makey-Makey), sensors will be considered in design to keep the costs minimal.
I told them that there are makers from kaer communities who are interested in developing things for external community and this can be a good opportunity for them. They have the passion to design things and also the knowledge to do so. So, I told them that I will search for makers who a specifically willing take on this project.
Endeavour people will talk with the parent of this child and parents and carers of other children who have similar difficulties in accessibility. I realized that Tom haven't thought about the possibility of developing individualized technologies, probably at lower prices in collaboration with creative design spaces like makerspaces. He commented that it is a great idea. We thought that even if this works for just a one child, that will be worth the while. We can, however, extend this work to help other children or adults with similar difficulties.
As a PhD student, part of my job is publishing. We hope that we can produce few high quality publications based on this project. We are also planning to get the help of uni students possibly in the next semester so they can complete project tasks as a part of their degree program. We also need to sort out some ethics concern before we do any prototype testing also.
I went to Gold Coast Techspace about week ago. The first person I met was Peter and we somehow ran into this project. Without even me asking, he said that he can help, he sounded very enthusiastic about it. So I added him to the loop. We need to find couple more people. I am sure we can get more on board by the time we prototype any device.
The project was tentatively named 'New Hope'. So, all in all, the path looks good and exciting. It all fell into place. Now it is a matter of holding it together. It is challenging. But, I believe it is possible. And if that is possible we will be able to bring smiles to few faces. I believe, that is the job of a researcher - the job of any person really!