Ph.D. Candidate Emory Edwards Receives Public Impact Distinguished Fellowship

November 29, 2021

A headshot of Emory Edwards with a big smile. They are a white non-binary person with short dark-blonde hair wearing a black collared shirt with white flowers. The backdrop is out-of-focus greenery.

On Nov. 16, 2021, informatics Ph.D. candidate Emory Edwards of UCI’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) received a Public Impact Distinguished Fellowship. “I was overjoyed when I heard the news,” says Edwards, who will receive $12,000 in funding. The fellowship aims to support research that “demonstrates the potential to significantly improve or enrich the lives of people in California and beyond,” and with a focus on representing people with disabilities in technology design, Edwards is already making an impact.

“Emory’s research contributed to the development of an inclusive, accessible image set centering people with disabilities that will be used by internal Google tech designers and shipped on all new Google Chromebook laptops,” says their advisor, Informatics Professor Stacy Branham. “That’s an estimated 40 million laptops that will come for the first time ever with accessible profile images that actually depict disability.”

Edwards says their work has always been grounded in the question of representation. “From personas that depict people with disabilities (like I wrote about in my CHI EA 2020 paper) to actual disabled people in the room with and as technologists, disabilities have been overlooked for a long time,” they say. “This has led to inaccessible mainstream technology being the norm, because disabilities are thought of most often during implementation, if at all.”

So in early 2020, Edwards started a collaboration with Emily Blank and Michael Gilbert of Google. “They wanted, just like I did, to prompt reflection on who is being designed for in most tech companies and to make sure that was as inclusive of a group as possible.”

A colorful 3D cartoon-like illustration of an adult with a light skin tone and a blond beard and ponytail using an electric wheelchair against a pale pink background. They are wearing a green shirt and holding some groceries with more hanging from their chair. They have their eyes closed and look calm and happy.A colorful 3D cartoon-like illustration of an adult with long blue hair, dark-colored eyes, and light skin tone against a yellow background. They are wearing a red shirt and a hearing aid. They have their fingers together and hand positioned upward, resting against their chin. They motion their hand forward, smiling slightly. With this motion, they are saying thank you in sign language.A colorful 3D cartoon-like illustration of an adult with a light skin-tone and short blond hair against a red background. They are smirking and wearing sunglasses, holding a white cane in one hand and a steaming coffee in the other. They are wearing a sleeveless blue sports vest over a white long sleeve shirt.
Professor Stacy Branham’s team of students, led by doctoral candidate Emory Edwards, worked with Google to host a series of workshops to elicit feedback on avatar imagery. Some of the images assessed included (from left) a wheelchair user transporting groceries, a person signing “thank you,” and a person carrying a coffee and their white cane. (Illustrations by Janet Mac & Patrick Dias)

As the research project developed, they started focusing on image descriptions and how people with disabilities could inform such descriptions. So they reached out to people with lived experience. “Speaking to participants with disabilities during the 19 interviews and nine focus groups I ran with my co-authors, Isabel Tuason and Kyle Polster, revealed so many complexities to representing disability that I never would have thought of on my own.” This further led them to ask, “What can be done to make sure that accessibility is considered at every step and level of technology design?”

Edwards is grateful for support from the fellowship. “I felt in awe that this work is being recognized and so thankful to my advisor, my collaborators at Google and my lab mates in INsite lab, and all my participants who were so generous with their thoughts and time.” [INsite is the INclusive Studio for Innovative Technology and Education.]

The funding will help further advance this important work, as Edwards stresses that both the physical and digital worlds are still “hostile” to people with disabilities — from buildings without ramps to poorly worded image captions. “While companies are making the effort to advance their considerations for disabilities, there is still so much more to be done to make sure tech — as a tool, a culture and a part of the world at large — is made for everyone,” they say. “If my work can make even one person with a disability feel included and respected in the process or products of technology development, then I will be happy.”

Shani Murray