Benetech Welcomes Human-Centered Computing Expert Clayton Lewis

By Laura Deck, posted on

I recently sat down with Clayton Lewis, Professor of Computer Science and Fellow at the Institute of Cognitive Science at the University of Colorado Boulder, who is serving as an advisor to Benetech’s DIAGRAM Center for six months. Clayton’s expertise in human computer interaction, inclusive design, and assistive technology for students with learning differences will help drive new frontiers for DIAGRAM.

What are some characteristics of inclusive design? How does it differ from universal design?

Universal Design is a progressive idea with the goal of designing things that support the broadest possible audience. Recently some people have come to prefer the term inclusive design to mark a special emphasis on flexibility. In its strictest sense, universal design calls for the design of things everyone can use, without modification or assistive devices. But, people often want to use assistive devices and configure things to work best for them. Inclusive design recognizes the importance of this flexibility. Mostly, though, Universal Design and Inclusive Design address exactly the same goal: to design things that work for as many people as possible.

A person is writing on a sticky note next to an iPhone and app screen sketches

What are some new developments or big ideas in inclusive design?

One big idea with a lot of potential is Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure (GPII) which is dedicated to “building an on-demand, personalized, accessible, on-ramp to the Internet.” Supported by the Raising the Floor Consortium of over 80 organizations, including Benetech/Bookshare, GPII has adopted the AccessForAll approach that is based on achieving accessibility and digital inclusion by dynamically matching each individual’s unique needs and preferences with the resources, services, interfaces, or environments available.

For example, an individual who is deaf wants to see captions when watching videos. With GPII, she would enter her viewing preferences once, and those preferences would be applied to every video player app she uses. The infrastructure stores the specifications in the cloud and allows apps to tap into those global specs. This is just one example of inclusive design.

How can inclusive design help individuals with cognitive disabilities?

With colleagues at the Inclusive Design Research Centre at Ontario College of Art & Design University and Bridges-Canada, we’re exploring how programming activities, that are becoming common for schoolchildren, can work for children with complex cognitive issues. An opportunity here is to link programming to things children are working on in real life, such as how to sequence the steps in getting ready for school. Today, the programming challenges kids are given are often disconnected from their interests, like moving a robot around. Inclusive design stresses being able to adapt the tasks to children’s individual interests.

What are some initiatives and projects that you are working on at Benetech?

We’re working on a user-testing program for Benetech Mathshare. Available data are very limited for students with cognitive disabilities. We hope to develop an approach that can be implemented remotely, which will reduce costs and make it easier to recruit participants. We’re also making contacts in this region with special education teachers and assistive technology specialists to help us explore other ways technology can help the learners they work with. While in Palo Alto, I am also working on an assignment for the Coleman Institute for Cognitive Disabilities, exploring how developments in machine learning can support people with cognitive disabilities. We expect that some of those findings will also contribute to a review we’re doing at Benetech on support for learners with non-print disabilities.

It sounds like your plate is full! What else do you hope to do in the Bay Area while you are here?

I’m reading The Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age and soaking up the history of Silicon Valley. It’s exciting being in an area where so much has happened and continues to happen!

Learn more about how the DIAGRAM Center is building new paths to accessibility.