IT, Disabilities, Research and the Process of Learning

Bodil Jönsson, Ph D, Ass prof
Peter Anderberg, PhD-student
Håkan Eftring, research engineer
Jonas Falkvall, research engineer
Center of Rehabilitation Engineering Research at Lund University,
Box 118, S 221 00 Lund, Sweden

The 4th European Conference for the Advancement of Assistive Technology (AAATE'97)
Thessaloniki, Greece, September 29 - October 2, 1997

Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. A university for everyone
3. IT and learning
4. IT and rehabilitation engineering research
5. § 255 in the Telecom Law of the USA
6. Conclusions


l. Introduction

The following are some of the possibilities of technology in general and, in particular, IT:

2. A university for everyone

CERTEC has developed the concept "A university for everyone" as a three stage rocket. The first one was to enable and empower one disabled student, Peter Anderberg, to fulfill his master studies (electrical engineering) at Lund University and abroad (Santa Clara University, U.S.) ([1]). Peter began studying at the Lund Institute of Technology at about the same time as the precursor of CERTEC was being created (1986). He failed and interrupted his studies. After this, he stayed away from Lund and his studies for many years. In 1995, he resumed his studies with great success; used information technology; began cooperating very closely with CERTEC. He has done his final year abroad (in the United States) and has now his degree in engineering and is a doctoral student at CERTEC (and a co-author of this paper).

The second one was to make a complete course, an introductory course on rehabilitation engineering, accessible over the net. One of the lectures, a 90 minutes' introductory lecture, is available in English ([8]).

The third step to follow will be to make a complete master's education accessible to students with disabilities.

3. IT and learning

CERTEC aims at providing disabled people not only with assistive technology but also with knowledge. Of course, this it not to be taken literally: it is not possible to "give away knowledge". But it is possible to be consciously striving to make it easier to acquire knowledge, and we are doing just that by focusing on giving learning for and about people with disabilities an honest chance.

All previous changes in everyday education have had one thing in common - they have influenced some particular aspect, perhaps a certain perspective or a minor part of a course or a lecture or a book. Similar to the way one move in a chess game will usually (at least temporarily) affect only the immediate vicinity of the chess piece. We are now experiencing something which looks more like the Othello game: adding one single piece may have global consequences. "The only piece" is the Intemet. The use of the Internet can actually, although it sounds odd, from certain points of view provide greater proximity than an ordinary lecture (see [8]).

And suddenly it is possible, for example, to let the students be the ones who are asking the questions. Whether disabled or not. Students are able to get to the very source. It is not only "dare to know", catchwords of the Age of Enlightenment, which are echoing. The "to the source" (ad fontes!) of the Renaissance has suddenly become reality.

One reason why learning is one of CERTEC's priorities, that is, why we are focusing on the process of how information can turn into knowledge and on how education can contribute to this process, is that if people with disabilities themselves acquire knowledge about rehabilitation engineering they can in themselves unite their insights both into the effects of the disability and into how the technology can be made to meet their needs, wishes and dreams. Thereby, the iterative process can sometimes take place inside the individual person, which certainly reduces the risk of mistakes being made. Peter Anderberg is an excellent example of such a person and of the importance of such a person.

The university's famous bridge between research and education could be sturdier and stronger if it was built between research and learning instead. The latter processes are the ones that are most closely related. Research generates knowledge which is new to the researcher and to humanity, while learning generates knowledge which is new only to the student. However, on an individual level, both research and learning are about human learning and therefore there are many similarities between them.

When focusing on learning, CERTEC also wanted to look for support in research, but unfortunately there is not very much there. Pedagogical research has been focusing on education, teaching, syllabuses, curriculums, organization, etc. For instance, the process of learning has been the subject of fewer than 5% of all doctoral theses in education in Sweden during the 20th century. There is insufficient knowledge about the mentalizing process itself, that is, about what happens when a person learns something.

4. IT and rehabilitation engineering research

Nothing influences development as much as a well-developed thought infrastructure. This is why it is always necessary to work on thought patterns, to question their relevance and make them visible and shared. In other words, one has to acquire a functional and revealing language, a shared way of looking at reality. Here, IT is a powerful tool to make new results visible and to challenge and provoke existing knowledge in the direction of increasing brilliancy.

Much handicap research is done as interdisciplinary studies. There are advantages to this in the short term, but in the long term it is difficult to take further. The most important objection to interdisciplinary studies and projects is supposed to be financing difficulties and irregular, short term project organization. However, CERTEC believes that there is a far more serious problem: the interdisciplinary approach has fallen altogether short when it comes to language development. With the participation of capable individuals from various disciplines it is possible to achieve a good result, with new and relevant knowledge. If, however, the new knowledge is abandoned out in the interdisciplinary desert when the project is finished, it is almost certainly lost. It is not suited to being transferred to old disciplines. The project results cannot be kept alive and be developed further without constant, continuous work being done on theories, methods, language, and structuring. This is not detrimental if the field in question is, and is supposed to be, ephemeral (for example a project with the aim of solving a specific problem using a specific type of technology for a specific period of six months). A finished project is supposed to be just that, finished. However, if the field is more eternal (such as rehabilitation engineering, where lifespan of the insights gained from research is far longer than that of a specific generation of technology), it is a waste of human effort to allow interdisciplinary structures to be the only possible ones for a project. It is an open but challenging question how far IT can help, being a platform for a fast formation of concepts and theories in a recently unstructured and premature interdisciplinary field.

5. § 255 in the Telecom Law of the USA

In the USA, the Americans with Disabilities Act applies, making physical accessibility mandatory. The new telecom law from 1996 is a law in the same spirit. It has a special (255 stating that telecommunication equipment and telecom services are to be accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, if readily achievable. It is the manufacturers that have to prove if something is not "readily achievable", and any prototype that shows an achievability is precedential. Whenever accessibility is not achieved, the manufacturers or providers shall "ensure that the equipment or service is compatible with existing peripheral devices or specialized customer premises equipment commonly used by individuals with disabilities to achieve access, if readily achievable". We strongly believe that, because of the international trade and telecom market, $255 will have a deep influence also in Europe on the telecommunications and thus on IT and learning. The CERTEC research on how the Phantom could enable blind children to get a complementary virtual sensory computer interface (also pr.esented at this conference in a paper by Jönsson and Sjöström) might be one of the projects with precedential influence.

The complete law is made available at [9].

6. Conclusions

For the first time in history of (dis)abilities, not only thresholds of wood or stone but also cognitive thresholds and distances as thresholds can be overcome through pure technological breakthroughs. To get further, however, there is a need for a closer combination between the research on rehabilitation Internet-ing and the pedagogic of special needs education. Both partners have to dare learn and dare research. Together.