Blind World Magazine

MSU expertise helps launch accessibility consulting service.

October 26, 2005.
Michigan State University.

EAST LANSING, Mich. - A new southwest Michigan-based consulting service looks to link businesses to a burgeoning market by drawing on more than a half century of Michigan State University experience helping disabled students, faculty and staff.

The service is designed to help companies go beyond published guidelines and include hands-on accessibility testing early in the product design cycle. MSU experts from the AgrAbility Project, the Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities, the Artificial Language Laboratory, and the Usability & Accessibility Center will provide training to consultants from Community Connections, a Benton Harbor nonprofit promoting disability awareness and support.

Stephen Blosser, an MSU assistive technology specialist, will describe the service Thursday, Nov. 3, as part of his presentation at the Michigan World Usability Day conference at MSU.

"MSU collaboration enables its partners to provide a ready-made focus group of persons who can advise engineers and designers on ways to make products more accessible and convenient," said Michael Hudson, director of MSU's Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities. "These are people who have a lifetime of experience recognizing and dealing with barriers because they deal with them every day."

Intended to help companies recognize accessibility barriers in design, the service also will address disabilities associated with aging, such as diminished vision, hearing, mobility and fine-motor coordination.

Given the rapidly growing and free-spending baby boomers, disability-friendly design increasingly will be one way of tapping a large and growing market. The 77 million U.S. boomers, half of whom will be 50 or older this year, spend $2.1 trillion annually.

"Designing accessible products for users with disabilities also makes the products more usable for everyone," said Sarah Swierenga, director of MSU's Usability & Accessibility Center. "It's a win-win situation for companies and consumers."

History is rife with examples of disability-inspired innovations spilling over into the mass market, as well. In inventing the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell drew on his research to teach deaf students to speak using a visual alphabet of symbols of the lip, throat and tongue positions needed to produce certain sounds. Carbon paper was originally developed to help a blind woman write letters to her lover.

A more contemporary example is inventor Ray Kurzweil's invention of any-font optical character recognition, OCR, in building a reading machine for the blind. Today OCR, which turns pictures of text into editable text, is the core technology of most computer scanners.

MSU has decades of experience in using human and technological glue to make everyday items useful for people with disabilities. In the 1930s, the campus resource center and the Tower Guard service organization launched a reading program for the blind. More recent successes include work through the Michigan AgrAbility project to customize a boat for a visually impaired fisherman and collaboration with MSU engineering students to build a prototype talking washer for the blind.

This year, with support from DaimlerChrysler, Blosser and Hudson are once again teaming with an MSU engineering class - this time working to add accessibility features to an exercise machine in the new MSU fitness center.

"Through this collaborative project we hope to make our fitness center a model of accessibility," said James Renuk, an MSU intramural sports coordinator. Renuk experiences a disability and has served as test pilot for many of MSU's assistive technology innovations during the past 30 years.

Renuk uses a custom-built infrared keyboard emulator to access his home and office PCs. "Without my IR keyboard emulator, I would not be employable," he said.

The new service is aimed at a broad category of manufacturers. New items essential to day-to-day life - cooking, washing clothes, driving, communicating, running farm equipment and so on - are being redesigned and mass produced at an ever-increasing rate. Unfortunately, these items are rarely designed with the needs of persons with disabilities, including seniors with newly diagnosed impairments, in mind.

Community Connections, which will coordinate the consultants' work, has been serving the needs of disabled southwest Michigan residents since 2000. Now, the same people served by the organization will have a chance to give back - and to earn income in the process.

"This project will empower persons with disabilities to find employment and improve independent living options" said Kathy Ellis, director of Community Connections. "We have hundreds of individuals in Michigan that are ready to serve in this cause."

Businesses interested in the service should contact Blosser at (517) 353-9642, Ext. 237,or

For more on MSU's work to create a talking washer, including a brief video clip, visit the Web at

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