Cross pollinated disciplines

 

The benefits of interdisciplinary perspectives to tackle every day problems have long been advocated in many walks of life. Without the influence of arts and sciences, how could solutions for any situation be sustainable at all? Consider for example, any given smart phone. Whilst packing in a plethora of technical necessities, they couldn’t possibly be usable if they were not so beautiful somehow. Aesthetically pleasing in the way they look, feel and among other things, enable access to capture and edit photos, videos and music. Not because we all consider ourselves serious food photographers or music enthusiasts, but because these things are intertwined in our lives and we are somehow pleasured by the act of sharing our experiences.

Why then, when I think of assistive equipment (hand splints, walking aids, adapted keyboards) do I sigh in disappointment that they are not so sexy? Actually, they are not sexy at all. They serve a functional purpose, often engineered with physiological goals in mind. Mass-produced to keep costs low, understandably.

In his book ‘Design meets disability’, Graham Pullin invites us to construe new perspectives for the design of adaptive aids and equipment that, refreshingly, alert us to the fact that different people might actually have different tastes, shaped by their age, gender, social class, environment as well as many other factors. One example that I often recall is the account of the athlete, model and actress Aimee Mullins, whose collaborations with Alexander McQueen and Dazed & Confused magazine present a lasting, iconic image of Mullins wearing nothing but her carbon fibre running legs and tracksuit bottoms. This and a latter image of her jaw-dropping, hand-crafted wooden legs carve out an image in the mind that is difficult to forget. Not because they present her as an icon for disability, but because (for me) they present her as an icon for people.

Pullin’s design thinking approach invites us to consider designing all sorts of adaptive equipment and aids from new perspectives, for example, creations that are fashion pieces, designed to be exhibited and worn with pride: to be noticed rather than discretely hidden.

This perspective makes me consider how disability is communicated in different contexts; whether there are differences in how this is projected through the social model of disability; and how far this goes in changing a person’s views on how they construe disability.

I recently visited a show at the Copperfield Gallery, London, with works that were collectively framed around the title ‘compassion not gain’. Whilst on first look I thought that this was probably intended to rouse empathy for disability, the arrangement of pieces communicated something far deeper. A gilded wheelchair entitled ‘Apollo’s chariot’ positioned facing a limply hanging parachute (‘Fall, where the birds die’), next to a wooden ballet barre inscribed in Braille with a poem by Frida Kahlo that described overcoming frustration through strength of will, suggested that all bodies are vulnerable at some point. Whilst the artist David Escalona sensitively projecting fragility in human kind, his pieces highlighted that all forms of struggle are ever changing and lie on a continuum. If it is in fact society that enforces disabling barriers rather than individualised impairments, perhaps a golden chariot does accurately represent a wheelchair for a specific individual or perhaps the words of Kahlo’s poetry can accurately depict the emotional and physical struggle of a ballet dancer.

These examples are only a few of many that highlight the value of seeing everyday obstacles through a different lens; a design thinking approach to consider known situations in new ways. More on design thinking to follow.

David Escalona, El Carro de Apolo (Apollo’s Chariot), 2015. Gold plated folded wheelchair.
David Escalona, El Carro de Apolo (Apollo’s Chariot), 2015. Gold plated folded wheelchair.

 

David Escalona Puntos de apoyo (Supporting Points), 2015. Three wooden bars with alloy braille inscription.
David Escalona Puntos de apoyo (Supporting Points), 2015. Three wooden bars with alloy braille inscription.

 

 

A focus on values

silos of lego

 

 

Over recent years, child computer interaction (CCI) research has pushed the agenda for interaction design, embedding the contributions of children throughout the design process. Researchers are teasing out and critiquing the roles that children are proposed to play and the impact this has on their contributions (see for example Alison Druin’s work on the hierarchy of roles, 1999). What is less clear, particularly for children who have neurodiverse profiles, is how their contributions actually impact on design decisions in practice. This leads me to side-step and explore what we are actually expecting from kids in research.

 

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that we as adults cannot begin to assume what children might want from their technologies without asking them, which pretty much just repeats and reinforces the direction of recent qualitative CCI research. What I have struggled to gauge is how we begin to describe children’s meaningful contributions in terms of reflecting what is important to them and what we call this.

 

I’ve noted that some researchers, particularly those working in the fields of co-design (or related) are exploring the notion of values. It is increasingly becoming apparent that defining the term ‘values’ is a tricky task as any variation on its definition consequently impacts on its exploration.  But how can we investigate it if we can’t define it? Surely there’s some synergy to be had!

 

This post isn’t intended to be a review of the literature so I won’t be defining and cross-referencing here (but look out for that soon).  This post is intended to shine a light on adult expectations for what we think children will want to share (overtly or indirectly) then challenge this so that we can once again reflect on all the things that actually reflect meaningful life experiences for children that we miss – because we define in narrow terms.

 

Confused, right?  Well, yes.  It’s a muddy topic that has silos of mind-blowing advancements which are just that; self contained and not quite applicable for real-life cases that challenge predefined scenarios.

 

More on this topic to follow in later posts.

 

.silos of lego

Interaction Design and Children 2016: pre-conference workshop ‘Roles & Values’

IDC 2016

IDC 2016

Today I was fortunate to participate in the IDC 2016 pre-conference workshop which explored Roles and Values of Children in Design.
‘Role Workshop’ organisers: Monica Landoni, Elisa Rubegni, Emma Nicol, Janet C Read

‘Value Workshop’ organisers: Helle Skovbjerg, Tilde Bekker, Wolmet Barendregt

The course organisers carefully orchestrated discussions on how participants of this interdisciplinary group reflected on the multitude of assumptions and positions we take in striving to involve children in positive and meaningful ways.

For me, the main take-home messages focused on:

  • how multi-stakeholders approach this with different design and research goals which ultimately influence the roles we may already pre-conceive for children
  • Fostering a dialogic learning process for all
  • negotiations with different stakeholders; whether this be academia, industry or families around the child, and
  • tools for helping to promote reflexivity.

The organisers introduced a card based tool to support in questioning designer / researcher assumptions about a ‘type of child’ that technologies might be intended for; which allowed again, for reflecting on and questioning a specific persona one may have in mind for specific technologies.  The group also presented the Clothes Line approach for supporting the design process whilst working through, ‘sorting’ and ‘airing’ ideas.

A really interesting day packed full of many fruitful mini discussions!

 

Ethics & integrity – How do we make it meaningful?

crying child

Judging from the nature of this post, you’ll probably gather that I’m reflecting on how to plan and carry out research that is ethical. The bigger challenge is being able to reflect this process in an application that is useful for purpose and relevant whilst steering clear of a tick box, paper-pushing exercise.

 

Actually, I’m noticing that the topic of ethics appears to be something of a life choice (no, seriously). A stroll down my local supermarket isle uncovers ‘ethically sourced food’ and ‘free range eggs’. In another context, healthcare, education and social care workers all sign up to practicing within the remits of their governing bodies, safeguarding children through our professional roles, whistle-blowing and engaging in regular training practices to ensure we are up to date with relevant policy. It appears that we are all working harder to protect our knowledge and experiences of protecting others.

 

Research ethics committees often seek to understand how projects overtly demonstrate informed consent but this is trickier when children cannot sign a form or understand the immense jargon-ridden language we splatter.

“I can see from your high tone and asymmetric tonic neck reflex that you are telling me to get lost!”

Do we then work with what we have and assume consent? Of course, not. But isn’t one person’s perception of a child’s non-verbal assent just as subjective as the next? If a neuro-typical child says ‘yes’ just to please an adult, who’s to say that a non-verbal child will respond any differently? Questions are raised in terms of gauging authentic views that use trustworthy practices for seeking them.

 

I’ve had some really valuable guidance from lecturers and course peers, especially on the process of working with children and young people, not to mention copious literature on the topic of sociological research. Most discussions on the topic are increasingly suggesting that working ethically is a highly dialogic process that spans the life cycle of all research and beyond. Asking questions, even when there is no clear answer.

 

crying_child

 

Researching with, not for.

child with thinking cap

In this post, I had intended to sum up my views on why AAC design research should start to involve children who are direct beneficiaries of AAC technologies.

It has long been established that children are expert at being children.  Try as we might, therapists, teachers, engineers and designers can only go so far as to have a view about what children might think about a specific idea or artifact.  We can’t actually assume we are any closer to creating appropriate and usable technologies unless we include the key stakeholders themselves.  Saying that, the heterogeneity between children who use AAC makes it incredibly difficult to represent the views of children themselves in research without adding tokenistic contributions.  So what do we do then? My initial thoughts; start small and be clear about who communicated specific opinions.  Some views might be generalised, others may not be.

In beginning to explore research with children and young people, I’m quickly establishing that there is a great deal already out there which describes children as active participants.

Much of what I’ve read describes this far more eloquently than anything I could compile and critique here.  For this reason, I’m directing the remainder of this post towards Prof. Priscilla Alderson’s blog post, entitled: “The missing third that skews sociology”. Here is the link to this post.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Levelling the playing field

image of Dave Grohl on drums & Stevie Wonder on piano

It would be fairly naïve to assume that I could easily master a new language, with a totally different linguistic system, at the ripe old age of thirty something without lots of trial and masses of error. If I was limited further by being exposed to my new language only once a day, with selected people and practicing only how to talk about the weather I’d probably decide it wasn’t worth the hassle.

Children who have motor difficulties that impact on their speech development are often limited in their opportunities to play and interact in different ways of their choosing. This has widely been discussed in previous research (see Bedrosian, 1997; Blockberger & Sutton, 2003). They are also likely to be introduced to other ways of talking much later than if they were to have developed natural speech, constantly playing ‘catch up’, with language systems that are challenging to learn.   Light and Lindsey demonstrated this, back in 1991, when exploring the mismatch between young children’s developmental levels and AAC technologies that were available at the time. Those endless opportunities for children to graze their knees (in a metaphorical and literal sense) were just not there then, and still not present today.

We know that some children understand, develop and learn differently and this isn’t always in a step-wise, developmental way. Language disorder implies a varied pattern of strengths that doesn’t correspond to developmental norms. This means that all children will not necessarily learn the same pattern at a delayed rate. Similarly, as a neurotypical adult, I am unable to empathise with the sensory and emotive occurrences that some children experience. This means, I am constantly missing opportunities to support children to frame and share these experiences with others.

 

What’s the goal?

We can’t expect that all children will play the piano, if they prefer the drums

If we’re going to begin to give a child a fighting chance of learning to use their AAC technology, perhaps we ought to start digging deeper. What does the child actually want to use it for? What are they currently expressing? Is this very different to what they have currently have available to them?

Often, as language specialists it’s no surprise that we choose to focus on training children to use their AAC to ‘transmit language’ (like telling a joke, answering dad’s question or expressing a dislike of broccoli). This might be completely acceptable and appropriate for them, just as long as their goal is not different to ours. But what happens if the goal for that child is to use their device to enhance their social image or self esteem? Interestingly, Light, Page, Curran & Pitkin (2007) showed that children who were involved in their study of designing devices for other children who used AAC said their friends would prefer devices that had varied functions, not just confined to verbal language.

In reflecting on my clinical work, I can’t help but ask why then am I bound by language development if I know that children follow different trajectories? Should I continue gradually working through the continuum of introducing real objects, before photos, symbols and written words? What happens if we happen to stick with symbols for extended periods? Are we hindering opportunities for supporting literacy development or other forms of expressive communication?

Lots of questions but food for thought, I guess.

 

 

 

References:

Bedrosian, J. (1997). Language acquisition in young AAC system users: Issues and directions for future research. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 13, 179-185.

Blockberger, S., & Sutton, A. (2003). Toward linguistic competence: Language experience and knowledge of children with extremely limited speech. In J. Light, D. Beukelman, & J. Reichle (Eds.), Communicative competence for people who use AAC: From research to effective practice (pp. 63–106). Baltimore, MD: Brookes

Light, J., & Lindsay, P. (1991). Cognitive science and augmentative and alternative communication. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, Vol. 7, pp. 186-203

Light, J., Page, R., Curran, J., & Pitkin, L. (2007). Children’s ideas for the design of AAC assistive technologies for young children with complex communication needs. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 23, 1-14.

 

 

 

Disclaimer: The author of this blog post has no particular preference for pianos or drums and does not assume that either is more appealing than the other.

The story so far

old library books

Encouraging children to take on any form of technology can be tricky for so many reasons.  A quick search for computers for kids brings up hundreds, thousands of choices which compete for our attention.  Each has a seemingly impressive list of specs and multiple capabilities, from an adult perspective.  Usually, we manage to decide on one (whether it be for gaming, learning, communication or all) but the excitement of tearing away the polythene wrapping and dislodging it from its polystyrene cocoon quickly turns into a reality that now, you’re on your own and it’s up to the child to use it or not.

If it’s engaging you’re onto a winner.  The device begins to mesh into everyday life, across home, school, grandma’s house and other and the excitement snowballs until everyone that needs to, can recognise its value. If it’s boring and too difficult to learn to use then it is destined for the cupboard; occasionally to be brought out to humour the well-intentioned speech therapist who is recognised to be working with what they have.

Within the field of technology design, participatory methods are increasingly being called upon to embed the values, needs and preferences of users at early stages of the design process, moving towards technologies that are closer aligned to what users want from their systems.  It’s great to see more and more design research involving children with neurodiversity.  Some key studies that have developed methods and frameworks for engaging children who have diverse needs can be found here, here and here. Whilst utilising therapeutic strategies and prompting us to consider total environmental factors, there is still a need to look at use cases, particularly for what is potentially the ‘hardest to reach’ who have severe speech and physical difficulties as well as additional needs.

Well-established augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) frameworks have provided both the foundations and pillars to my clinical work over the years (see Janice Light’s definitions of communicative competence) but it is only now that I’m starting to question where the child and their choices fit into this.  By choices, I mean authentic views and engagement that goes beyond the limitations that we, with adult eyes, impose on children.

Perhaps not all children want to use words and language to express themselves? Perhaps the learning and communication environments we provide are only pushing our adult agendas? Perhaps we need to stop and reflect on what children are telling us when they let out an audible sigh as we once again dust off their communication aids that lurk in cupboards?