Nancy Van House Joins Pioneering New Disability Research Initiative

School of Information professor Nancy Van House will be part of a sweeping new UC Berkeley research initiative focused on disability studies.

The university announced the new disability research initiative earlier this month. Ten faculty members from eight campus units will collaborate on research related to disability, with topics including how people define and respond to disability and the critical areas of technology, education, and employment.

Professor Van House teaches the I School’s user experience research course, Information 214, which covers methods of collecting and interpreting data about real-world user activities and translating them into design decisions.

“User-centered practices are particularly important when designing for people with disabilities,” said Van House. “As researchers or technologists, we can’t assume that our experiences are the same as our users’. This is even more true when users have physical or mental disabilities.”

As part of her course, a number of students have already been exploring the needs and experiences of disabled people. One recent student project worked with the campus Disabled Students Program to evaluate a new technology for note-taking. Another, by doctoral students from engineering and environmental health sciences, assessed a new engineering technology for paraplegics.

Van House also pointed out that designing for accessibility can benefit everyone. “Any of us could suddenly find ourselves with a temporary or permanent disability. Many computer users, for example, suffer from repetitive stress at some point and need alternatives to keyboards and mice. And, as we age, most of us will experience some mobility limitations, reduced vision, or cognitive challenges.”

The new interdisciplinary effort is intended to make UC Berkeley a worldwide leader in the area of disability studies. “Disability studies is a young field, an emerging field, but UC Berkeley was one of the first in the mix,” said Susan Schweik, a professor of English and co-director of the new research initiative.