Carleton considers disability studies institute

A group of professors and staff members at Carleton are trying to bring experts from fields as different as neuroscience and social policy together to form a melting pot of creativity around disability studies.

The group has received $25,000 to study the feasibility of what would be the first disability studies interdisciplinary institute in the world.

Besides bringing researchers from different fields together, the new centre could offer students the option of minors in subjects like engineering and accessibility, or public policy and accessibility.

It’s being called the READ institute, for Research, Education, Accessibility, and Design.

It’s always been a dream for Dean Mellway, a coordinator at the Paul Menton Centre for Students with Disabilities at Carleton.  He says the timing feels right, now: Carleton has established a reputation as what he calls the most accessible university in the country. Ontario has passed a law to guarantee a standard of customer service for people with disabilities, and the province is in the process of passing similar laws for communication, employment and transportation.

Dean Mellway, Disabilities Coordinator, Paul Menton Centre for Students with Disabilities

Generally speaking, according to one of the professors leading the READ initiative, most disability studies programs already out there approach the topic in one of two ways: via the social sciences, researching what it’s like to be disabled in our society, or via design, trying to find solutions to practical, everyday problems that people with disabilities face.

Most programs take the social science-based approach, says Roy Hanes, an associate professor of social work at Carleton.  The READ institute will be more design-oriented.

A whole world of study into accessible design already exists within schools of industrial design.  It’s referred to as “universal design.” One need look no further than the school of industrial design at Carleton to find it in action.

Professor Lois Frankel and her student Steve Kellison are creating a foam mat that will help seniors working to regain their sense of balance. The person must try to step backward, forward and to the side on the mat.  If he’s successful in transferring his weight, a lightbulb lets him know.

Lois Frankel, an associate professor of industrial design and her student Steve Kellison

And students in the industrial design program are already tackling problems of universal design, too.  When he completed his bachelor’s degree, Tim Haats created a wheelchair rugby chair that can be adjusted for players of different heights and weights.

Wheelchair rugby is as violent as the standard version of the sport. Players ram into one another, trying to wedge a metal prong on the front of their chair into the wheels of their opponent to immobilize them. But despite the sophisticated armour that clads these chairs, they’re pretty much one size fits all.

Tim Haat created an adjustable rugby wheelchair

A lot of interdisciplinary work already takes place between the faculties of design and engineering.  Recently, professors from both faculties collaborated on a walker that uses sensors.

Design professor Frankel is excited about the possibilities of the READ institute.  “The idea of it being interdisciplinary is actually very exciting because then you don’t have people solving the same problem from their different silos, you have everyone coming together,” she said.

The study into the feasibility of the READ institute will last until April of next year.  It will try to learn from existing disability studies schools, build partnerships with other Carleton faculties, develop a potential curriculum and attempt to secure funding.

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