Military lab making everyday items usable for disabled

Monday, May 8, 2006
Brad Fain, a Georgia Tech senior research scientist, demonstrated a torque meter used to test the amount of energy needed to remove a product's screw top. Another meter is used to test the amount of energy a person with arthritis can exert without experiencing pain. (Associated Press)

Testing Folgers and fighter pilots in the same lab may sound strange, but scientists say the work is quite similar.

ATLANTA -- It was created during the Cold War to conduct tests for the military, but now a Georgia Tech lab has a much more grounded mission: To find ways to make everyday items more accessible to disabled people.

At the lab, researchers check out copiers to see whether wheelchair-users can easily reach controls. Fax machines are put through a battery of tests to investigate whether blind people can use them. And coffee jars are probed to determine if arthritic hands can unscrew the lids.

About half the work at the Georgia Tech Research Institute's accessibility division is now dedicated to such testing, while the rest is still spent on military projects. There's also a flight simulator jammed with complicated tracking devices in the office.

Testing Folgers and fighter pilots in the same lab may sound like a strange mix, but scientists say the work is quite similar. The research team uses the same methodology -- primarily extensive checklists that focus on user experience -- to tackle both military systems and everyday items.

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, senior research scientist Brad Fain said.

"It's hard to get more real-world than military testing," he said. "When your life is on the line, every move counts."

The scientists primarily aim to help products meet a federal guideline, known as Section 508, which encourages companies to make electronic devices more accessible to the disabled. Companies that want to sell products to the federal government are urged to meet the federal statute, which is monitored by the Department of Justice.

So far, the policy has compelled some changes, particularly in the copy machine industry that's embraced tactile displays and is 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 for wheelchair-users and other improvements.

Paul Papadopoulos, a Ricoh marketing analyst 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.

In other industries, compliance with Section 508 is mixed, according to a 2004 report from the National Council on Disability. It noted 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.

"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."

A few companies do in-house testing, particularly large corporations. But they tend to be more limited in scope, said Dennis Folds, a senior research scientist with the institute. Since the center is independent and has no stake in whether a product passes or fails its examination, the primary focus is on the accuracy and integrity of the test, he said.

Individual companies pay for the testing done at the Georgia Tech lab, and the government has funded two exhaustive studies on accessibility there as well.

The researchers also test a slate of products each month on behalf of the Atlanta-based Arthritis Foundation. If companies don't pass the rigorous examinations, some go back to the drawing board, said Mary Norman, an executive with the foundation, which pays for the work.

Approved products get the foundation's "Ease-of-Use" logo.

"Our goal is to create more products that are easy to use for people with arthritis," she said. "For day-to-day activities, easy-to-use products are critical."

Fain said researchers must first figure out exactly how a product is handled.

"You have to think outside what it means to use a product," he said.

At the lab, testers with various disabilities help probe each item with an array of tools, ranging from torque meters that measure how much force is needed to twist off a lid to a simple lever that tests the required grip strength.

Researchers say the tests are designed to focus on specific disabilities. If a test is focused on people who are blind, for example, then the participants must be blind, Folds said.

Some items, like the spongy bed sitting in the lab, present a more pressing challenge. To test it, the team booked a room at the campus hotel for 30 days and monitored the sleeping patterns of different people who had trouble sleeping -- a rather tiresome study.

The same couldn't be said for some golf gear the scientists tested. It 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.

On the Net

Georgia Tech Research Institute: www.gtri.gatech.edu/

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