Monthly Archives: July 2018

The role of extremes

I started my professional life working to engineer efficiency, often using parallel computation, and often by balancing resources.  And balance, “on balance,” has many advantages, see the previous post.

Then came Eva.

Eva was born about twenty years ago, a redhead on St. Patrick’s Day (following her mom, born on Christmas Eve).  Two weeks old and suffering seizures from a viral encephalitis.  There was no time for balance, for a measured approach.

Eva survived, and unexpectedly given the research I could find and understand.  It has been an exhausting amount of work, and more than a child without issues like CP, cortical blindness, seizures, reflux — eventually other issues would arise such as low platelets, scoliosis, and respiratory challenges.  In terms of disability, Eva is in the extreme of the extremes (save for the few with even more issues, they exist, and require even more support).

In trying to make lemonade from lemons, I have worked recently to pivot into accessible computing research, broadly defined.  This transition all took place as we in CS @ Haverford explored test-suite driven design to teach introductory courses and programming.  In both instances, we are forced to consider the extremes to generate solutions that apply to as large a universe of circumstances/problem instances — i.e., “universal design.”

There is a popular image entitled, “Clearing a path for people with special needs clears a path for everyone,” that gets at the point of universal design, and can be viewed at this page on UDL.  I suppose it is understandable that designers initially thought of addressing for the most popular users (i.e., “non-disabled”) since about 90% of the world’s population reports no disability, and those designs might be easier and quicker to implement.  However, the remaining group of users with disabilities is huge in the absolute (about 650 million people)!  And as the ramp clearing image demonstrates, addressing issues of access for people with disabilities, if done thoughtfully, also provides access for the majority as well.

I am not saying that extremes are always good — c’mon, think of the recent hurricanes in Puerto Rico, Texas — but thinking about extremes in design might have helped mitigate the degree of disaster.  Extremes happen, and one should be prepared, including how to handle extremes in one’s own life.

Thus, I would now say that I am pivoting into “universal design” — in pretty much everything.  Universal access does not imply balanced access, but that is the topic for a future post.