Ross Atkin’s Robots Rewire Inclusive DesignHis philosophy: to make hardware that helps people with disabilities, make hardware for everyone.
His philosophy: to make hardware that helps people with disabilities, make hardware for everyone.
The disposable straw’s negative environmental impact has earned lots of bad press recently, but that little piece of plastic was once considered one of the most inclusive design objects in the world. Hospitals were early adopters in the 1940s — the simple invention freed nurses from lifting cups to mouths — and eventually straws were everywhere, from kids’ juice boxes to adults’ $8 iced coffees. Like Velcro, curb cuts in sidewalks, and closed captioning, straws are an example of what’s called universal design: innovations that meet the specific needs of people with disabilities, while also making life more convenient for all.
“We know that disabled people are best served by the product becoming a success in the mainstream, because that keeps the volumes up and the costs down, as well as minimizing any stigma around the product,” explains Ross Atkin, whose urban design firm, Ross Atkin Associates, has created inclusive everyday inventions like street lights that brighten based on individual needs, clearer signage for construction zones, and an app that shows when public elevators are out of service.
Atkin is also working to make robotics more accessible with his Kickstarter-funded Crafty Robot and his new Smartibot kits. And although you won’t see this called out on the Smartibot project page, which is live on Kickstarter now, the product is also a scalable, cost-friendly toolbox that helps people living with disabilities to build customized assistive technology.
“We’ve designed Smartibot to give a really cool, open-ended creative experience” rather than “an idea of the proper way people should be doing things,” says Atkin. As he tested his new Smartibot kit with everyone from knitters to ceramicists to participants in the Botato Wars, a vegetable-based robot battle, Atkin saw that each user “was able to make something that was both very distinctively them and actually worked.”
Punny vegetable wars make robots fun, but Smartibot also opens up possibilities for more meaningful DIY projects. Atkin sees the Smartibot kit as an under-the-radar assistive technology that can help people with disabilities harness a widely useful tool for their own specific needs. “It can so easily serve as a bridge between a smartphone or tablet and almost anything that is battery powered, and the interface can be tailored to the needs and preferences of the person using it,” he says. Friends who work in assistive tech have already messaged him with ideas for custom applications.
But Atkin also understands that downplaying this aspect of his product in promotional materials might actually be a more effective way to achieve his goals.
“We’re trying to be more like Apple in this regard, sneaking assistive technology into mainstream products and only telling the people who need to know about it.”
His thinking is informed by a 2013 in which he and his collaborator, Sam Jewell, found that the “huge diversity of needs and preferences” among people with disabilities meant that they need technology to be either “very highly specialized or really adaptable.” Specialized hardware is expensive to produce, since the scale of production is so much more limited than mainstream projects, and the report found that many people with disabilities would rather use adaptable mainstream technologies anyway. Specialized solutions can be “stigmatizing” for people with disabilities and “draw attention to how they are different from other people,” Atkin says.
As someone who lacks formal engineering and software training, he can empathize with how newcomers to robotics can feel “desperate to make something” and frustrated when they don’t yet know how. He aims to meet people where they are — in terms of their skills as well as their interests — and help them discover their own use cases. “I’m not designing the final outcome, I’m designing a tool that other people will use to get to the final outcome.”
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