An Assistive Technology Course: A Promising Practice in Including Disability-Related Topics in the Engineering Curriculum

6.811: Principles and Practice of Assistive Technology (PPAT) is a semester-long, project-based course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) focused on the design and engineering of customized assistive devices for people with disabilities. In PPAT, small teams of students work closely with a person with a disability in the Cambridge, MA area to develop a product or solution that helps them live more independently. The course also includes lectures on user-centered and participatory design, labs on accessibility and assistive technology, and panels and guest speakers featuring assistive technology users and other people with disabilities, advocates, entrepreneurs, and industry leaders.

Throughout the course, each design team of students meets with their client and creates multiple prototypes with iterative improvements. For example, in Fall 2014, projects developed through the course included:

  • an interactive campus accessibility website with indoor and outdoor accessibility information
  • an accessible iPad-based nurse call system for a wheelchair user with multiple sclerosis
  • 3D-printed cochlear implant covers for rain protection and background-noise blocking
  • a wearable vibrating notification bracelet for a person with hearing loss and low vision
  • a no-spill attachment that allows an amputee to carry coffee while using his crutches
  • a signature-line finding system for a blind user to sign documents
  • a customized text-to-speech app for a person with primary lateral sclerosis to communicate effectively
  • a transfer device for a wheelchair-using machinist to transfer from the chair to the ground
  • a pressure-sensitive glove that alerts its wearer if they are about to lose grip strength
  • an email-reminder system that creates gentler, more humane reminders for a user experiencing cognitive overload
  • a smartphone camera mount for a power wheelchair user to film and photograph events

PPAT and projects developed in the course have been profiled in multiple news stories:

PPAT is a promising practice for including disability-related topics in an engineering curriculum. Through the course, engineering students gain insight into challenges that individuals with specific disabilities face and use engineering design methods to solve a problem for a specific individual. Engineering students that are aware of accessibility issues will bring that awareness into their professional careers and thus impact the field by addressing accessibility-related issues in engineering design projects. 

For more information about PPAT visit MIT Open CourseWare.