Understanding the Benefits
Professor Stacy Branham’s work in accessible computing focuses on the interplay of technology, users and their community. Notably, she understands that accessible computing functionalities are not necessarily limited to people with disabilities. “We all have challenges that we overcome through collaboration. For example, when I’m carrying a lot of things, I might rely on systems like the automatic door opener for wheelchair users.” Embracing this idea that technology design that starts with people with disabilities can benefit people of all abilities, she stresses that “people with disabilities are not just the subjects of my research. They’re the actors.”
Designing for Interdependence
Another important tenet of Professor Branham’s work is shifting the focus from “independence” to “interdependence.” For example, in working with researcher Amy Hurst and Toyota to develop a device that helps blind users navigate indoors, she also is considering external influences on the user’s sense of physical and social well-being. When the system makes a mistake, “people who are sighted sometimes step in and try to ‘help,’” she explains, “but it can be scary to have a stranger grab you and interrupt your travel, which can potentially put you in harm’s way.” She now is working to address such interdependent interactions, in this and other devices, to lead to more positive outcomes.
Algorithms and Ethics
In examining how the technology interests of marginalized people are interdependent, Professor Branham’s research also reveals difficult tensions. For instance, while gender recognition algorithms can help a blind woman infer the gender of an approaching stranger, they also can adversely affect the transgender community through miscategorization. By constructing her research team to include people with a variety of disabilities and gender identities, Branham has found a way to better understand the ethical dimensions technologists must consider. She purposefully designs her team “to mirror the communities we’re trying to serve.”