Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Georgia.
Saturday, April 29, 2006.
It was born out of the Cold War to conduct tests for the military, but now scientists with Georgia Tech Research Institute's accessibility division have a much more grounded mission.
While the campus office still boasts a high-tech flight simulator jammed with complicated tracking devices, about half the department's work is now dedicated to finding better ways for the disabled to use everyday items.
Researchers assess copiers to see whether wheelchair users can easily reach controls. Fax machines are put through a battery of tests to investigate whether the blind can use them. And the researchers probe a batch of coffee jars, trying to determine how hard it is for arthritic patients to twist open the tops.
Testing Folgers and fighter pilots in the same lab may be a strange mix, but scientists say the work is quite similar.
The research team uses the same methodology - primarily extensive checklists that focus on performance - to tackle both military systems and household products.
The testing also thrives on real-world examples. "And it's hard to get more real world than military testing," senior research scientist Brad Fain said. "When your life is on the line, every move counts."
Familiar with the military's rigorous standards for determining accessibility, the school's $7.5 million center is a good fit for investigating how to make products more accessible to the disabled, Fain said.
The scientists aim to help products meet a federal guideline, known as Section 508, which encourages companies to manufacture more disabled-friendly products. Companies that want to sell products to the federal government are urged to meet the standard.
So far, the policy has compelled some changes, the most profound in copy machines, which have embraced tactile displays and are experimenting with voice controls.
Ricoh Corp., an office equipment manufacturer, turned to Fain's team when looking to improve the accessibility of its copiers. Researchers visited the company's Tokyo headquarters and met with engineers to help tinker with the design, resulting in a final model with tilted screens and other improvements aimed at making the machines easier to use.
Paul Papadopoulos, a marketing analyst for Ricoh who was once the company's point man on accessibility, said it was important to have the Georgia Tech lab handle its testing.
"They are very well-known as a third-party source. They gave us more credence," he said.
A 2004 report from the National Council on Disability indicated mixed results under the federal guideline, noting that some businesses are concerned the government isn't regularly enforcing the policy.
"Some companies were concerned with the expense and most were wait-and-see," Fain said of the accessibility push.
"It's a nice thing to do, it's the right thing to do and it's a federal requirement," he said. "If you want to sell to the federal government, you should make it accessible."
Individual companies pay for the testing done at the Georgia Tech lab.
The researchers also test a slate of products each month on behalf of the Atlanta-based Arthritis Foundation, delving into whether each product can be easily used by the average arthritic sufferer.
Fain said researchers face the same critical question with every item he and his team study: How do you test a household item?
Testers with varying disabilities help probe each product with an array of tools, ranging from high-tech torque meters that measure the force of twisting to a simple lever that tests grip strength.
Some items, like the spongy bed sitting in the lab, present a more pressing challenge. To test the bed, the team booked a room at the campus hotel for 30 days and monitored the sleeping patterns of different testers through each night.
The same couldn't be said for the golf gloves and grip that the scientists tested, which required a golf simulator hooked up to a video game.
"Suddenly, a lot of administrators began complaining of arthritic symptoms to come visit us," Fain said.
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