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Accessibility apps enable those with special needs

Research assistant Jaclyn Schwartz never loses sight of the people who benefit from her efforts.

Accessibility apps enable those with special needs by Beth Stafford

As research assistant Jaclyn Schwartz describes her work with the Rehabilitation Research Design & Disability (R2D2) Center, it’s clear that she never loses sight of the people who benefit from her research efforts.

Her interest in the health sciences was sparked as a teenager when she drove her brother, who had childhood hearing loss, to his sessions with a speech-language pathologist. Later, when her undergraduate studies in speech-language pathology included observation of other health science professions, she was impressed by an occupational therapist who worked with children with autism.

“It’s a matter of people being able to fully participate in life and do the things they need – and want – to do, despite a loss of function or disability.”
Jaclyn Schwartz, R2D2 research assistant

After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin, she was accepted into the master’s degree program in occupational therapy at Washington University in St. Louis. “The WU program is particularly research intensive. My master’s thesis project was a checklist for people with low vision to help them know what buildings would be accessible to them.”

Knowing that Professor Roger O. Smith was working on a similar but more technology-based project at the R2D2 Center at UWM, she contemplated doctoral studies in Milwaukee.

But first, she decided to gain some real-world experience. Working with doctors and patients at a large metropolitan hospital, Schwartz produced discharge plans for those with a broad range of injury and illness. “My goal for patients was the best quality of life possible after their hospital stay.”

Coming to the R2D2 Center and working on the Access Ratings for Buildings (AR-B) Project brought together her experiences at WU and at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis.

The R2D2 Center, with partners at Marquette University and the UWM Mobile Innovation Lab (see “Brewing new apps to help nonprofits“), is developing two different apps that will provide up-to-date accessibility information about public buildings for those with disabilities, their families and friends, and building owners.

“In spite of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, people with disabilities continue to be challenged in the community by buildings with accessibility barriers,” says Smith. “Consequently, people with disabilities may not have information about barriers until they encounter them.”

The AR-B Project will help people answer questions such as, “Can we get Grandma’s wheelchair through the doors at the restaurant?,” before going out to eat.

“It’s a matter of people being able to fully participate in life and do the things they need – and want – to do, despite a loss of function or disability,” says Schwartz. “We know that people are resilient, smart and capable. Our strategy is to give them the information they need so that they can plan better.”

The Consumer App is a tool for consumers to retrieve accessibility data. Since what is accessible to someone who is blind may not be accessible to someone in a wheelchair, people fill out an online profile – similar to other social media sites. “Users tell us as much as they want about their functional limitations, including temporary or permanent disability. Then, they can search for a location, look at other reviews and see what will work for them and what won’t.”

With the Trained Rater App, a trained evaluator goes to a building and does a comprehensive building assessment, collecting specific measurements.

“Our goal is to use social media to develop a large base of people who will go out and evaluate a building,” says Schwartz. To help with the training, students from the UWM Film Department are working on a video tutorial to teach people about conducting accessibility evaluations.

To date, the R2D2 Center has received $600,000 in funding from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research for the AR-B Project. The center, located in the College of Health Sciences, performs interdisciplinary applied research and development related to technology and disability. The center affiliates with several colleges, schools and service programs across UWM.