Andreas L. Larsson, PhD
Luleå University of Technology
What would you say are the key
differences between working on ordinary product development projects and
development of assistive technology devices?
In most situations a
product developer would likely be a potential user of the device to be created
and would therefore have a good idea of how it should work. However, an
engineer working on developing an assistive technology product would most
likely NOT use the device being developed and might not fully understand or
appreciate the subtleties required of the design. So the engineer must rely
heavily on the needs and preferences of the targeted population of individuals
who will ultimately buy and use the device. While the designer has the
expertise to develop a working device, the product's users define a successful
product. If it doesn't meet their needs, it is a failure - even though it may
be a technological work of art. Designers must therefore work closely with
users in all stages of development - from conception to testing - to insure
that a truly beneficial product is created.
What do the students learn by actually
working closely with persons with disabilities throughout the design process?
(This is rarely the case in Swedish classes.)
I would hope that
students learn about the nature of disability; learn to observe and listen to
individuals with disabilities (and their family) as they express their needs,
desires, and preferences; and learn to include people with disabilities as an
integral partner of their design team. Individuals with disabilities often have
a lifetime of experience living with different capabilities. Students must
address these kinds of differences in the design of specialized products that
specifically serve consumers who are disabled (or elderly) - or to incorporate
design features that would broaden the use of products for a wider market.
How do students benefit from working
with public and private sources in the community?
In working with
community agencies and commercial companies that serve individuals with
disability, students get a comprehensive understanding of the needs of a
particular disability group - such as veterans, people with low vision or
blindness, or stroke survivors. Whereas a single point of view comes from an
individual, the needs of a larger community are better articulated by an
organization that represents a group. It is important to understand that two
individuals who are blind may have very different needs. So, if a assistive
technology engineer designs a device with advice from just one user, the
resultant device may only solve the needs of that one user. A device designed
with input from many users will better serve a wider range of needs and thereby
help more people.
Any random thoughts on education and
assistive technology that you would like to share?
I believe that
assistive technology can be the basis for many socially rewarding student and
research projects - not only in Mechanical Engineering, but also in Electrical
Engineering, Computer Science, and Human Biology. It is my desire to create a
laboratory and form a collaboration of students and educators within these
discliplines to address the technology needs of people with disabilities and