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As Some Of Earth's Billion Disabled People Seek Education, 'RoboDesk' Tries To Smash Barriers

Stan Jastrzebski

In the corner of a basement office in Purdue’s Mann Hall, there’s a desk up on cinder blocks, sitting higher than all the rest. A few feet away there’s a workspace consisting of tables whose height can be raised or lowered. Researcher Brad Duerstock designed his own office  – to accommodate his wheelchair.

“I’ve used mounting systems where I was so kind of physically away from the table, I was more close to the table behind me than the table I was really involved with," he says. "So it is excluding.”

Duerstock has used a wheelchair since suffering a spinal cord injury as a teenager. Now, he develops educational tools to help others with disabilities.

In an adjacent lab he shows off his invention -- RoboDesk – a metal arm that attaches to a rail underneath a wheelchair. On the other end is a mount that can hold a tablet computer and extend it in front of the chair’s user.

Although Duerstock has some control over his workspace, even it presents problems. As he’s wheeling around to head back to his office – a task that’s as simple as pivoting on one foot for someone standing next to the bench – the professor’s chair becomes momentarily trapped as it bumps into a pile of supplies.

This actually illustrates one of Duerstock’s goals – enabling better use of technology, but without making wheelchairs any bulkier and harder to maneuver than they are -- or making people with disabilities appear to be having a harder time in the classroom.

“The more they can do things, the more they can interact how people without disabilities interact, which is electronically, then yeah, those social barriers also drop,” Duerstock says.

The goal, he says, is to move people toward accepting wheelchairs the same way they accept contact lenses. And those who develop tech for the disabled say that’s important, because it could help cater to a market which is often underestimated.

“I don’t think, broadly, we – as in society – appreciate how big the segment of people with disabilities is in the world. It is huge,” says Jenny Lay-Flurrie, who earlier this year was named Microsoft's Chief Accessibility Officer. “People with disabilities globally around the world is a huge part of the population – it’s over one billion people. That’s not a minority. And so I think the scope and scale of the market here is pretty immense.”

Lay-Flurrie says she and her team regularly speak with people like Brad Duerstock – inventors seeking to serve the disabled. It’s a conversation near to her heart.

“I am deaf. I have been deaf since I was a small girl," Lay-Flurrie says. "My deafness has progressively declined, so actually I’m sitting here speaking to you looking at my [American Sign Language] interpreter Belinda, who’s telling me what you’re saying.”

But even though there are inventors with an eye on assistive educational technology and officials at large tech firms looking to incorporate those ideas, the ed tech space is still underserved.

“I think that no matter what, all of our companies – all of our manufacturers of technology – would likely agree that they’re not reaching the number of students or adults or individuals with disabilities that we can be reaching,” says David Dikter, CEO of the Assistive Technology Industry Association, which brings together companies such as Microsoft that make and sell products for the disabled.

“It’s not an easy population to kind of target and say ‘Here I’m going to just simply market to this population,’ he says. "Many of the companies that are involved in ATIA, they’re targeting practitioners and professionals, so their technology is used by individuals with disabilities, but the individuals with disabilities aren’t getting a lot of support in purchasing and choosing the technology that they use.”

And he says the products tend to cater to a wide range of needs.

“There is not necessarily a one-size-fit-all,” Dikter says. Which is exactly Purdue professor Brad Duerstock’s point.

“Definitely when you talk about people with disabilities, one size does not fit all,” Duerstock says.

So that’s Duerstock’s challenge – take the one RoboDesk prototype that exists now and mass produce it in such a way that it can be adapted to any wheelchair and then sold for one-to-two thousand dollars apiece. He says he hasn’t made any calls to the likes of Apple (whose representative declined a taped interview for this story) or Microsoft. But Microsoft Chief Accessibility Officer Jenny Lay-Flurrie says it’s a product with potential.

“What Brad’s trying to do and the product itself could have great implications for the market,” she says.

And if Duerstock calls, Lay-Flurrie says it’s the type of conversation she might have.

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