The struggle for independence

Many digital applications would benefit the disabled, providing opportunities for a more self-determined life. But how can they access them?

Even before Corona it was clear that our lives are becoming increasingly digital, with the number of devices, programs, and apps we use in our everyday lives, and the amount of time we spend using them, constantly increasing. But this is not true for all members of society – for disabled people, digital participation is severely limited, perhaps even impossible. In The Care and Technology Lab (IMTT) at Furtwangen University, research is being carried out to find ways to allow the disabled to benefit from digital devices.

Everyday technology could provide support

The long title of the project, "Individual socio-technical Arrangements for the social Participation of those with cognitive functional Impairment" (InstAgT), is shortened to "Digital participation" by the Director of the institute, Professor Dr. Christophe Kunze and his team. "In this area, little research has been done with people who have learning disabilities and often other, complex disabilities as well," says Professor Kunze, "yet this is the group that is most excluded!" People who live in institutions because of their disabilities often have no opportunity to use appropriate devices there – even WLAN is often a problem. However, many of the technical aids that already exist, such as voice assistants or read-aloud functions, could be extremely beneficial to those with disabilities. Being able to play music without having to ask someone else to do it for them, being able to find out when the next bus leaves at the click of a button, or often simply being able to make themselves better understood - these would be great achievements for many of those affected. "Disability is always an interplay of functional limitation and environment," explains Professor Kunze. In a world that is not barrier-free, disability literally means "being disabled.

Individual questionnaires

For the InstAgT project, the project team is conducting individual case studies with around 40 test subjects who all live in integrated care institutions which are cooperating with HFU for the research project. "Cooperation with those closest to them and the caregivers is an important prerequisite," reports Christian Menschik, one of the researchers working on the studies. The Catholic University of Applied Sciences Freiburg and the Karlsruhe University of Applied Sciences are also involved in the project. The researchers conducting the studies all have previous experience of working with disabled people. "We work closely with the caregivers, who are always present - and sometimes answer for the test subjects," Menschik reports. The researchers decide on an individual basis the best way to help them understand their questions, for example, by using easy language or pictograms.

What do facilities need?

The project team first analyse their subjects’ needs and goals. "These often relate to communication and mobility," Menschik reports. The second step is to consider what existing technology could be used to achieve those goals and provide guidance and training in set up and use. "Lastly, we look at what measures are needed at the institutional level to ensure that those with disabilities have access and guidance within their facilities. We are thinking here, for example, of advisory services or qualification measures," explains Professor Kunze. The main difficulty here is that the assistive technology system does not (yet) function in this way. "It is not designed for general technology to be taught by nursing and care staff. On the contrary, there are often inhibitions and a desire to protect those being cared for from the 'dangers of the Internet,'" he says. But it often takes very little to make a big difference. For example, the "one-button radio" which Christian Menschik and his colleagues have made. "It's great to see what a huge impact such a simple device can have," he says. Corona has delayed the schedule for the four-year research project, but perhaps now at least attitudes towards digitisation will be less critical.