Robotics for the Whole Human

In collaboration with deaf and hard-of-hearing high schoolers, aspiring engineers design for both accessibility and fun

As part of a final project this fall, several first-year School of Engineering students were tasked with designing robotic games for high schoolers at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Boston. The games had to be accessible to people with limited hearing, but even more important, they had to be something that the teens would consider cool. 

Charlotte Corbett, a technology teacher at Horace Mann, listened in as the Tufts students interviewed her class over Zoom. She could tell that her students found the questions—about the movies they like, the music they listen to—refreshing.

“They’re used to getting questions like, ‘When did you lose your hearing?’ ‘Were you born deaf?’ ‘When did you learn sign language?’” said Corbett. “Instead, the Tufts students were coming at them with, ‘What’s your favorite board game?’” 

Ethan Danahy, E00, EG02, and EG07, a research associate professor at the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach, assigned the project as part of a section of Introduction to Engineering that he teaches. He said the primary focus was not on designing for the students’ assistive needs—as is often the case with technologies being developed for people with disabilities—but, rather, on the students’ enjoyment. That’s because learning about the multifaceted needs and wants of the people who will use a design should be an important part of the engineering process.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations about existing designs that are not accessible and a lack of equity in the world,” Danahy said. “I want our students both to understand the impact they can have on the world as engineers and to feel a responsibility about that impact. The true way to effect change is not just in the work you do but by having many different voices at the table as you develop solutions.”

“We might refer to the Horace Mann students as our clients,” he added, “but they’re also co-creators.”

The conversations with the Horace Mann students revealed unique back stories, interests, and personalities. “The fact that they are deaf or hard of hearing affects so many aspects of their lives, but my students realized that that’s not all that they are,” Danahy said. “They’re not defined by that one thing.”

After the interviews, Danahy’s class proceeded to dream up playful, robotics-based activities with increased accessibility for the deaf community. Because COVID precautions kept the Tufts students from getting together in person with the Horace Mann students, they also created websites through which the high schoolers could control the robots remotely. Via video chat, students in Corbett’s class watched as the robots drew pictures, ran two-way races, and even operated a miniature donut shop from a Tufts classroom.

“Zoom makes everything laggy, but also really interesting,” said Nasir Wynruit, who, along with his fellow first-year classmates Rofeeah Ayeni, Kendall Phillips, and Jahnea Potts, developed a maze-traversing robot game called “The Great Escapade!” Wynruit said, “For our website specifically, we plan to implement ASL translation that would translate all the game’s text into ASL.”

“Our conversations were really nice,” Ayeni added, of the group’s interaction with the Horace Mann cohort. “They had a lot of eye-opening ideas that I had never thought students younger than us would think.” 

Other designs include “Tic Tac Throw,” in which a small motorized robot launches a ball onto a 4x4 grid. The player who lands three of their assigned color in a row wins. “For someone who’s deaf, English is actually a secondary language, because they consider ASL to be their first language,” said Matthew Wong, who built the game with classmates Gabriel Sessions and Eddy Zhang. The resulting importance of minimizing the amount of English was a significant “aha” moment for both Dahany and his students and informed further work on the accessibility of the companion websites. “Trying to minimize the amount of English became just as important as trying to make the words visible,” said Wong.

“It was intimidating at first,” Wong said, “because you want to make things clear. Luckily, there are guidelines online that are really helpful. Icons, for instance, are extremely useful for designing for accessibility.”

Juniper Moscow, who created an art-making robot called “Leggo Draw” linked to a graphics tablet, said the goals of inclusive design are closely aligned with her own ambitions: “I want to get into architecture, where there’s a huge discussion about codes and accessibility.” Designing with the Horace Mann students in mind has been a good reminder that those goals are not abstract. “There are actual people who will end up experiencing my work,” she said.

Back at the Horace Mann School, Corbett praised Danahy’s class for understanding her students as whole human beings, with desires for joy and relaxation as well as needs. “I often tell people my students are a microcosm of the community at large, the community of Boston,” she said. “Seeing the culture of disability, and deaf culture in particular, being normalized—that’s exciting.”

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