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Unique research project brings together experts to understand how tech can help improve lives of disabled people

A first of its kind research project is bringing together expertise across diverse fields to understand how disability is currently represented and how technology can help improve the lives of the community.

Led by the University of Leeds, the project is called Imagining Technologies for Disability Futures and it will harness experts from the fields of arts and humanities, design, engineering and robotics. The idea is to learn how technologists can learn from people with disabilities, and support them in the future.

The £1.5 million project will begin in January 2020 and will be for a period of five years. There will be researchers from the universities of Sheffield, Dundee and Exeter involved as well as international partners in the United States, Japan and Sweden.

From care and companionship robots to sophisticated assistive speech technology systems, well-designed technology that fully takes account of users' needs can be a great force for positive change. This is a unique project, bringing together researchers across the world from very different backgrounds. Our aim is to better understand how disability and technology interact and how that interaction could develop in the future, with an ever-increasing rate of technological change. - Professor Stuart Murray, Principal Investigator & Director, Leeds' Centre for Medical Humanities

Professor Murray says the project will produce new ideas about how disability is seen in a world where artificial intelligence and robotics will affect how we all live. "Tt will also create new technologies that can be used by people with disabilities today", he added.

The project partners will also make films, design exhibitions, participate in arts festivals and showcase their work at technology fairs in the UK and abroad.

The team will conduct participatory design activities with children and older adults with disabilities to co-design and prototype next generation assistive technologies. An important focus will be on animal-like companion robots that could operate to reduce anxiety in children in a hospital setting, and on telepresence robots that could allow older users to act or interact at a distance by remotely controlling a robot.

Professor Tony Prescott, from the University of Sheffield said the team is excited to work with researchers from the medical humanities. "This will help understand how culture influences the ways in which people relate to, and use, different kinds of robot technology in real-world contexts such as classrooms, hospital wards and people's homes. Our aim in this project is to work closely with people with disabilities in order to understand how assistive robots could help them and to design new kinds of assistive robot technologies that they find appealing and useable."

In Dundee, Dr Graham Pullin, a researcher in disability-led design at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, will lead a team exploring alternative futures for assistive communication technologies, drawing on cultural imaginings as well as lived experiences.

"We will be challenging the assumption that future augmented communication will inevitably 'disappear' into people's bodies. The futures we will prototype will be neither utopian nor dystopian, but as 'everyday' as we can make them. There are also issues around disability identity that we would like to explore with our disabled mentors and their conversational partners", he said.

Dr Luna Dolezal, a philosopher from the University of Exeter's Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health hopes the philosophical work will help provide a better understanding of the impact of these technologies on users.

The details of this story are from a press release by Eureka Alert

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