Disability brainstorm
Computer science students ponder innovations

By Fernando Quintero


Jennifer Mankoff

Jennifer Mankoff, a faculty member in electrical engineering and computer sciences, meets with students and women with disabilities from the community.
Peg Skorpinski photo

14 February 2002 | An allergy sensor that could detect potentially harmful ingredients, such as peanuts or dairy. A jacket with self-adjusting temperature control. An SUW, or sports-utility wheelchair, that could drive over sandy beaches or rough mountain terrain. Personal flying machines.

For their first assignment of the new semester, students in “User Interface Design,” a computer science course taught by Assistant Professor James Landay, spent a rainy Saturday afternoon late last month with a dozen or more women with disabilities, letting their imaginations run wild.

The Jan. 26 “innovation workshop” at Soda Hall brought together students, faculty, staff and members of the disabled community. Their goal: to generate ideas for the Virtual Development Center, an industry-supported partnership of universities and communities aimed at increasing women’s participation in technology.

Berkeley became a center site this past fall and Landay’s new class, Computer Science 160, is the campus’s first course collaboration with the center. Student projects focus on designing appropriate computer technology for women with disabilities.

The first half of the workshop aimed to open up lines of communication among participants. The second consisted of breakout sessions, in color-coded groups of six, designed to generate and refine ideas for student projects, based on the input of women with disabilities.

More than one student said the all-day workshop was an opportunity to discuss technology outside a small circle of techno geeks. For the women, it was the chance to be heard.

“A lot of people don’t take the time to understand or listen. People don’t see us as individuals,” Priscilla Moyers, a deaf specialist in sign language communication, said through an interpreter. “I came here. My ideas were heard, and I appreciate that very much.”

Pamela Miller, an Oakland computer technician who suffers from chronic shoulder pain, liked the idea of a temperature-controlled jacket to keep her warm and ease her suffering.

“It would be a blessing from God,” she said, shivering in the heated room.

Other ideas — some more realistic than others — dreamed up at the session: PDAs (such as Palm Pilots) with voice recognition; cookware with a “food-doneness” indicator; hands-free ATM machines; a one-handed jar opener; a hand-held device that would translate audio to text for the hearing-impaired; and a machine that makes the bed.

“I would buy the bed maker,” noted an able-bodied staff member.

In fact, technology developed for the disabled can help everyone, said Landay.

“Engineering is all about how to design something given certain constraints.”

The women participants had a variety of disabilities, said Maureen Fitzgerald, director of the local non-profit group Computer Technologies Program, who recruited the community participants. “There are women here who are blind, deaf, have mobility impairment and cognitive disabilities,” she said. “They have helped students have an expanded sense of what it’s like to have disabilities. I think it’s blowing their minds.”

Landay’s 48 students, however startled, were required to write, by the following Monday, a two-page essay on one of the project ideas. Said class member Jenny Nguyen, “I see my normal routine in a whole new perspective. It’s really changed the way I think about things.”


Home | Search | Archive | About | Contact | More News

Copyright 2002, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.

Comments? E-mail