Inclusive design to help people with autism and intellectual disabilities

28 Apr 2017

Prof Lizbeth Goodman, UCD College of Engineering and Architecture. Image: Lizbeth Goodman

Technology can help people with autism and intellectual disabilities but inclusive design is the key, UCD professor Lizbeth Goodman tells Claire O’Connell.

How can technology and design break down barriers for people living with intellectual disabilities or with autism? That is a key question being discussed at the DOCTRID V conference in University of Limerick this week.   

It’s also a question that has piqued the interest of Prof Lizbeth Goodman, who will be moderating a panel at the conference today (28 April). Goodman has worked for decades on new ways to apply technology tools such as virtual reality (VR) that can engage and empower people with intellectual disabilities and autism.

The goal is an inclusive design method, which takes a ‘one-size-fits-one’ approach, explained Goodman, who directs SMARTLab and the Inclusive Design Research Centre of Ireland (IDRC) at University College Dublin (UCD). She is professor of inclusive design at UCD’s College of Engineering and Architecture

“We believe that design should be inclusive; that technology and innovation must be personalised from the start to address the needs of all potential users without assuming any ‘norm’ from which some people will be seen to ‘deviate’,” Goodman said.

“Inclusive design assumes that there is no norm, but rather that there is strength in diversity, and a global social need to design for diversity. Otherwise, what you find is that many individuals can’t use standard technology tools, so they need to hack tools and interfaces to make them accessible, or need to pay over the odds for specialised tools, which could as easily have been designed for accessibility from the start.”

The inclusive design approach insists that it is up to all of us in society – including multinational technology companies, governments, policy groups and research teams – to design with, and for, the widest and most diverse society, according to Goodman.

“If we define a disability simply as a mismatch between a person and their environment – as Jutta Treviranus and her team do, in the Canadian inclusive design movement – then we can remove the stigma and just focus instead on working together to match up the needs of each and every person … and can design tools, methods, policies and curricula that enable everyone to shine.”

Virtual worlds for people with autism

A principal investigator on the EU-funded project Assistive Technologies for People with Intellectual Disability and Autism, Goodman has a long track record in using technology and inclusive design to empower a more diverse society and all its people, including creating ‘virtual worlds’ for those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 

“Using virtual worlds allows people with autism to socialise and to engage in a virtual environment that is safe, where they can build familiarity with environments and take time to become comfortable with the interaction with other people,” she explained.

“Because it’s virtual, you can make your avatar look like anything you like – you can be a cat or a jar of jellybeans – and that enables full expression of agency without the associated stress and risk of having to present yourself in some physical form. The avatar can move around the environment, listen in to a group discussion and/or take part in it through text chat or through spoken and movement interaction, but without the complex set of emotional, psychological, educational and socialisation issues that arise in real-world interaction.

“So the person with autism spectrum disorder can just be in the virtual world, without having to ask questions like, ‘Who am I? Do I have to engage with others? Do I need to look at people and do they need to look at me?’.”

Working with 3DNovations (, operating in Ireland as I-DEAS), and with All These Worlds and HorizonIRs (USA), Goodman and her colleagues at SMARTlab have designed virtual worlds to offer opportunities for people with autism to learn, play games and interact safely in virtual training environments for real-life situations such as job interviews.

And importantly, noted Goodman, many of the developers of these virtual world projects within the SMARTlab and network of IDRC partners are themselves on the autistic spectrum.

“Someone with Asperger’s, for instance, may often have the perfect skill set for computer coding and virtual world development. Asperger’s can be seen and understood as a positive skill set, rather than negatively as a disability. So we are showing how those skills can be applied in an inclusive design framework, and how companies can recruit employees with that particular skill set, to [have] great impact for all.”

Gadgets and gizmos to shine

At the DOCTRID V conference in Limerick today, Goodman will moderate a session on ‘gadgets and gizmos’ with a focus on creative tech innovation for real social good. It will include SMARTlab PhD graduate Dr Nigel Newbutt from the University of the West of England, on virtual environments by and for people with ASD; and Dr Mick Donegan from Oxford-based charity SpecialEffect and SMARTlab, on gaze control technology as an interface for people with little or no physical movement, apart from eye movement.

“I wish I had a Nobel Prize to give to [Mick Donegan],” said Goodman. “He is the kindly wise wizard of assistive tech. For decades, he has created games for kids with severe physical and/or intellectual difficulties so that they can express themselves creatively and thereby engage socially and feel motivated and included from an early age.

“Mick’s focus is purely on empowerment; on ensuring that all people have their maximum abilities supported. Before the eye control interfaces that he developed, those kids would have been isolated and would not have had a chance to show just how brightly they can shine.”

The DOCTRID V (Daughters of Charity Technology and Research into Disability) conference, focusing on collaborations and innovations to change the lives of those with intellectual disabilities and autism, concludes today at University of Limerick.

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication