Usability, Not Just Accessibility

Image of David GrayDavid Gray, PhD, as a grand plan to create a global, searchable online map for persons with disabilities. As the head of the Program in Occupational Therapy’s Disability and Community Participation Research Office, he wants to create a database that maps out locations and environments in terms of usability versus accessibility.

“A building or location can be accessible in broad terms, and even be ADA-compliant, but it may not be usable to those with certain impairments,” Gray explains. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to know how truly usable buildings or environments might be before you get there? We want to create a map like Google™ and do for usability what they did for GPS.”

Gray has led efforts in his laboratory to map barriers to increase community participation for people with mobility impairments for more than a decade. In 2004, he and his team created a series of lists that could be checked to determine if a location was, in fact, usable to persons with a specific impairment. Called the Community Health Environment Checklist (CHEC), they enabled occupational therapists and occupational therapy students to objectively assess locations, scoring them from zero to 100 based upon set criteria. As interest in the CHECs grew, a training program was developed so that other students and professionals could assess areas in their own cities.

“We’ve certified many occupational therapists who have scored about 1,000 buildings in a dozen cities so far,” says Gray’s research associate Jessica Dashner, OTD '02, OTR/L. How many more buildings need to be assessed? “About a million more,” she says, hoping that interest blossoms across the country. “We currently are developing a free online training program so that more people can get involved.”

The team also created a specialized assessment called the CHEC-DO to assess usability of physician’s offices. Dashner is teaching her first-year occupational therapy students to perform the CHEC-DOs and already has a waiting list of physicians to participate. Adds Gray, “On a broad scale, what we’re trying to do is maximize the environmental facilitators for different levels of impairment and help people participate in their communities.”

Efforts to enhance community participation and usability are ongoing throughout Gray’s laboratory. Clinical specialist Sue Tucker, MSOT ‘02, OTR/L, ATP, is researching ways to quantify and create a rehabilitation program for spinal cord injury patients to help strengthen muscles and improve driving ability. Carla Walker, MSOT ‘00, OTR/L, ATP, also a clinical specialist, is focused on creating an occupational therapy program for pregnant women who have a mobility limitation. Already she’s working with several obstetricians and a leading disability services agency to identify needed services. Gray, meanwhile, teamed with instructor Kerri Morgan, MSOT ‘98, OTR/L, ATP, and research assistant Megan Gottlieb to research how assistive technologies can enable persons with disabilities to succeed in the workforce. Morgan also is researching ways to quantify clinical outcomes and establish best practices for wheelchair seating and mobility evaluations.

On the horizon is a collaborative effort to launch an innovative usability program in an app store such as iTunes®. Targeting those who have mobility impairments, the app is in the final stages of prototype testing and will enable users to upload and share images and information about community usability. “We’re close to getting this system up and running,” says Gray. “I believe it will be a lifetime achievement. It’s that significant.”

“It takes energy and tenacity to run this laboratory,” he adds. “If we can change mindsets to the term usability, we will increase community participation and engagement. That’s been my lifelong goal.”

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