Creating accessibility through both research and training

accessible sign on colorful wall

By Elaine Smith

If the Lassonde School of Engineering wants to illustrate Empowering our People with Perspectives, Tools and Knowledge, a theme from its new academic plan, they have a perfect example close at hand: the research lab run by Melanie Baljko, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science.

Melanie Baljko
Melanie Baljko

Baljko’s Practices in Enabling Technologies (PiET) Lab and her students – undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral – focus their research on making life more accessible for people facing barriers and involve the users in designing assistive devices to ensure their needs are met. Many of her researchers actually are the very people who face barriers.

“We hire only students with lived experience, if possible, and find a way to let the research be led by these folks,” Baljko said. “All of us without disabilities can only be allies and create space.”

Although she knows of only one North American research lab led by a neurodiverse researcher, Baljko hopes the students who train with her will help increase those numbers.

“I’m taking the long view,” Baljko said. “This isn’t a five-year plan. If I train an undergraduate and they go on to graduate school and postdoctoral work, it will take time for them to become part of the system, and the system also has to be ready to receive them.

“There is a lot of ableism built into the system and it may require us to unsettle things and change the status quo.”

As she provides valuable training to students, they become immersed in designing solutions for disabled people, but they don’t simply jump in and pursue research they decide is a good idea. Such an approach, Baljko says, leads to a disability dongle – well-intentioned solutions that were never requested by clients and don’t actually address the problem at hand. Instead, they ask clients which problems they would like to see solved.

Foad Hamidi
Foad Hamidi
(photo credit: Research Graphics UMBC)

Baljko’s lab focuses on value-based digital media and digital technology design, paying particular attention to inclusion and social belonging. In one of the lab’s accessibility projects, Baljko and her students formed a partnership with a community-based organization in Kenya. Foad Hamidi, who completed his PhD research under Baljko’s supervision and is now an assistant professor in information systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, was one of the researchers on the study.

“We wanted to see what factors would impact a do-it-yourself communication device for non-verbal children outside of Europe and North America,” Hamidi said.

The team used open-source technology-building kits and fashioned a simple device that could be used to create vocalizations for these non-verbal children. They brought the device to the community and had families work together to build similar units for their children.

“There were positive impacts,” Baljko said. “The children could use the devices at a special education school and the community came together to talk about the special education stigma, too.”

A major ongoing project, funded by the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada and done in collaboration with Iris Epstein at the School of Nursing, Karen Swartz at Student Accessibility Services and external colleagues, is Accessibility in Educational Placement for Students with Disabilities. The researcher team is creating a toolkit that will enable people involved with student placements to find what is needed to support the inclusion of students with disabilities in placements.

“Students may face certain barriers in the classroom, but there are different challenges that come with going to a work site for placements, co-ops and work-integrated learning terms,” Baljko said. “Unfortunately, although people mean well, it often falls to the students themselves to raise awareness.”

Sarah Akhavan
Sarah Akhavan Kazemzadeh

Sarah Akhavan Kazemzadeh, a York computer science instructor, did her master’s thesis with Baljko in 2022 and has also been a collaborator on a number of PiET Lab’s research projects, including the design of assistive technology for a person with motor disabilities who is largely blind and deaf.

“It is basically a large screen that shows the letters of the alphabet,” said Akhavan Kazemzadeh. “The system scans through the letters and the person can press a button to stop it and choose a specific letter. It is a switch-activated writing system that this person has now been using for 10 years. She has gone to school with it and is now using it to write a book.”

Projects of this type have drawn interest from researchers elsewhere in the world. In 2023, for example, Baljko hosted an education event for her students and members of De Leidsche Fleisch, a study association for physics, astronomy, mathematics and computer science based at Leiden University, Netherlands, that aims to share knowledge and expertise with wider scientific communities.

No matter how many prototypes the PiET Lab creates, its motivation is sharing through open scholarship, not commercialization.

“The focus is on knowledge production, and the main outcome is papers and reports and open-source software,” said Hamidi. “However, if someone wants to take one of the ideas and turn it into a product, that would be wonderful. Unfortunately, with assistive technology, you often need government support.”

Akhavan noted, “Melanie’s significant impact shines through her development of a switch-activated writing system, utilized consistently for over a decade by an individual with motor disabilities and sensory impairments. This prolonged use underscores the essence of true accessibility. By involving individuals in the design process, Melanie’s approach ensures practical, enduring solutions. Unlike costly assistive technologies that often fall short of users’ needs, Melanie’s methodology advocates for sustainable, collaboratively driven innovation.”

Indeed, for Baljko, the process is as important as the research outcomes.

“I want to create conditions to bring people with lived experience of disability to projects as co-designers,” she said. “It’s a participatory method that erases barriers and lessens power imbalances.”

The final word about Baljko and the PiET Lab goes to Akhavan Kazemzadeh.

“When you think about this, it’s amazing. Melanie has realized that neglecting accessibility is a global issue and there’s a lot of work yet to be done.”