News Release

Changing the relationship between disability and technology

Grant and Award Announcement

University of Leeds

A major new research project is harnessing a diverse range of disciplines to examine how technologists can learn from people with disabilities - and support them in the future.

Led by the University of Leeds, Imagining Technologies for Disability Futures will for the first time bring together expertise in arts and humanities, design, engineering and robotics to increase understanding of how disability is currently represented, and ways in which technology can enhance lives in the future.

Funded with a flagship Wellcome Trust Collaborative Award in Humanities and Social Sciences, the £1.5m five year project will begin in January 2020. A variety of disability groups across the UK will be closely involved in shaping the project, which includes researchers from the universities of Sheffield, Dundee and Exeter and international partners in the US, Japan and Sweden.

Principal Investigator Professor Stuart Murray said: "From care and companionship robots to sophisticated assistive speech technology systems, well-designed technology that fully takes account of users' needs can be a great force for positive change.

"This is a unique project, bringing together researchers across the world from very different backgrounds. Our aim is to better understand how disability and technology interact and how that interaction could develop in the future, with an ever-increasing rate of technological change."

Professor Murray, who is Director of Leeds' Centre for Medical Humanities, added: "Our research will not only produce new ideas about how disability is seen in a world where artificial intelligence and robotics will affect how we all live, it will also create new technologies that can be used by people with disabilities today."

Project partners will also make films, design exhibitions, participate in arts festivals and showcase their work at technology fairs in the UK and abroad.

Academic expertise will include literary and cultural studies, medical humanities and philosophy, disability design, production engineering and robotics.

At Leeds, colleagues of Professor Murray in the schools of English (Dr Amelia DeFalco) and Mechanical Engineering (Dr Raymond Holt) are co-investigators.

The project - the first funded by Wellcome at Leeds through the Collaborative Award scheme - draws together several of the University's research and innovation strengths, including medical humanities, healthcare technologies and robotics.

An English Studies critical approach will investigate how society tells stories about disability and technology and the ways in which they are represented in literature and film. It will explore how bodies are imagined in the future - for example in science fiction - and how this resonates with people with disabilities today.

Research at the University of Sheffield will be led by Professor Tony Prescott and colleagues in Sheffield Robotics and the University's Department of Computer Science.

The team will conduct participatory design activities with children and older adults with disabilities with the aim of co-designing and prototyping next generation assistive technologies.

An important focus will be on animal-like companion robots that could operate to reduce anxiety in children in a hospital setting, and on telepresence robots that could allow older users to act or interact at a distance by remotely controlling a robot.

In addition to the project partners, the Sheffield group will lead on work with Sheffield Children's NHS Foundation Trust, with researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in the USA and Kyushu Institute of Technology in Japan, and with the University of Sheffield spin-out company Consequential Robotics.

Professor Prescott said: "We are excited to work with researchers from the medical humanities to understand how culture influences the ways in which people relate to, and use, different kinds of robot technology in real-world contexts such as classrooms, hospital wards and people's homes.

"Our aim in this project is to work closely with people with disabilities in order to understand how assistive robots could help them and to design new kinds of assistive robot technologies that they find appealing and useable."

Meanwhile in Dundee, Dr Graham Pullin, a researcher in disability-led design at Dundee's Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, will lead a team exploring alternative futures for assistive communication technologies, again drawing on cultural imaginings as well as lived experiences.

The team will build, exhibit and share early prototypes, the role of which will be to provoke reflection and debate about assistive technology and disability design.

Dr Pullin said: "We will be challenging the assumption that future augmented communication will inevitably 'disappear' into people's bodies. The futures we will prototype will be neither utopian nor dystopian, but as 'everyday' as we can make them.

"There are also issues around disability identity that we would like to explore with our disabled mentors and their conversational partners."

And at Exeter, Dr Luna Dolezal, a philosopher from the University of Exeter's Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health, will work alongside literary scholars and with the designers and engineers prototyping and testing technologies.

She said: "This is an exciting opportunity for philosophers to engage directly with engineers, designers and participants, through workshops and meetings, in order to develop innovative solutions for finished designs. I hope our philosophical work will help provide a better understanding of the impact of these technologies on users."


Further information

For interviews and further details, contact University of Leeds Media Relations and Communications Manager Gareth Dant via or +44(0)113 343996.

University of Leeds

The University of Leeds is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK, with more than 38,000 students from more than 150 different countries, and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. The University plays a significant role in the Turing, Rosalind Franklin and Royce Institutes.

We are a top ten university for research and impact power in the UK, according to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, and are in the top 100 of the QS World University Rankings 2019.

The University was awarded a Gold rating by the Government's Teaching Excellence Framework in 2017, recognising its 'consistently outstanding' teaching and learning provision. Twenty-six of our academics have been awarded National Teaching Fellowships - more than any other institution in England, Northern Ireland and Wales - reflecting the excellence of our teaching.

University of Sheffield

With almost 29,000 of the brightest students from over 140 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world's leading universities.

A member of the UK's prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.

Sheffield is the only university to feature in The Sunday Times 100 Best Not-For-Profit Organisations to Work For 2018 and for the last eight years has been ranked in the top five UK universities for Student Satisfaction by Times Higher Education.

Sheffield has six Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.

Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Glaxo SmithKline, Siemens and Airbus, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.

University of Dundee

  • One of the UK's top 30 universities (The Times/Sunday Times Good University Guide 2019 and The Guardian University Guide 2019)
  • Top 10 in the UK for student experience (National Student Survey 2018)
  • Gold award in Teaching Excellence (UK Teaching Excellence Framework)

It has a core mission to transform lives locally and globally by:

  • promoting the sustainable use of global resources
  • shaping the future through innovative design
  • improving social, cultural and physical well-being

University of Exeter

The University of Exeter is a Russell Group university that combines world-class research with very high levels of student satisfaction. Exeter has over 21,000 students and is in the top one per cent of universities worldwide. Exeter is also ranked 14th in The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide 2018 and 14th in the Guardian University Guide 2019. In the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF), the University ranked 16th nationally, with 98% of its research rated as being of international quality, while in 2017, Exeter was awarded a Gold rating in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) assessment. Exeter was named The Times and The Sunday Times Sports University of the Year 2015-16, in recognition of excellence in performance, education and research. Exeter was The Sunday Times University of the Year 2012-13.

The University launched its flagship Living Systems Institute in 2016, a world-class, interdisciplinary research community that will revolutionise the diagnosis and treatment of diseases. This follows recent investments of more than £350 million worth of new facilities across its campuses in recent years; including landmark new student services centres - the Forum in Exeter and The Exchange on the Penryn Campus in Cornwall, together with world-class new facilities for Biosciences, the Business School and the Environment and Sustainability Institute.

Wellcome Trust

Wellcome exists to improve health by helping great ideas to thrive. It supports researchers, takes on big health challenges, campaigns for better science, and helps everyone get involved with science and health research. It is a politically and financially independent foundation.

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