EDGE Lab Democratizes Accessible Design



EDGE Lab Democratizes Accessible Design

At Ryerson, a group of early-childhood educators aims to change the world, one piece of cardboard at a time.

Three-year-old Zoe tests her sandbox chair.

On a tabletop in the corner of Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone sits an odd-looking chair. It’s made of layers of carved and painted cardboard, and Ryerson University professor Jason Nolan points to it with pride. “This is the very first piece of social technology we built. That is a chair for a child named Zoe to allow her to sit by herself without the assistance of an adult or a medical device. This is allowing her to play in the sandbox.”

Nolan is the head of a team called the Experimental Design and Gaming Environments lab (a.k.a. EDGE), who, among many other things, are fronting a wave of research on the design and proliferation of adaptive devices for children with disabilities. While some designs feature cloth and soft circuitry, their material of choice is humble, discarded cardboard.

“The idea is that anything that we design can be made by anyone, anywhere, at any time,” says Nolan. “Any time we build a tool for someone with a disability, it means they are able to do more on their own than they could’ve done before. We’re increasing their autonomy.”

A professor of early childhood education, Nolan fell into the world of adaptive design unexpectedly. “One day I went by a store in New York and saw this adaptive design stuff being modelled and got in touch with [the organization behind the models] to learn their basic techniques.” Now, with the assistance of a research team of early childhood education students, these techniques are getting passed along to an ongoing fleet of eager students through workshops and eventually, Nolan hopes, a university-level course.

Soft buttons speak when squeezed. This prototype may be part of a wearable communication device some day.

Noah Kenneally, a member of the adaptive design team and student of Jason Nolan, has been helping extensively in this process. After watching an in-class video about the Adaptive Design Association—whose New York storefront was Nolan’s introduction to the cardboard revolution—Kenneally approached his professor with an offer of assistance. With a background as a community artist, Kenneally has been “building stuff out of cardboard for years” and jokes that “cardboard has chased me into academia.” The skill-set has proven useful.

“I got a grant this past summer from the university’s office of the vice-president for research and innovation to run my own research project, which I decided to run in conjunction with the stuff that I’ve been doing with Jason,” Kenneally explains. The project, which tests models of learning based on hands-on interaction, allows Kenneally to run workshops to test his curriculum theories in addition to passing along design techniques.

“It’s such an important part of what’s going on in adaptive design,” he says of the information-exchange process. “It’s really a collaborative process between the designers and the folks who are building, and the people for whom the objects are being made. They’re really involved in the process, which forces specific people to meet specific needs. So, the learning of those skills becomes a relational, face-to-face thing.”

A cardboard keyboard allows for easy manipulation.

With further assistance from researchers Rubina Quadri and Vlad Cazan—who each contribute their own loving spoonfuls of cardboard design know-how and technological wizardry—Nolan’s team is in constant motion. From low-cost wearable garments for speech-impaired children—featuring squeezable buttons that talk—to discreet chair-top self-rocking devices for kids with autism, Nolan and company hope to see their low-cost, DIY designs spread.

“We hope everyone keeps sharing these ideas and continues to improve them with their own innovations,” says Kenneally. “It’s an exciting experiment in democracy!”

Photos courtesy of Noah Kenneally.

CORRECTION: October 9, 9:40 PM We originally described a grant Noah Kenneally received as coming from the office of the vice-provost; it was actually the office of the vice-president.