University of Washington professor Jacob Wobbrock figures the best way to make technology more accessible to disabled people is to anticipate their needs from the very beginning.
The co-director of a new UW center for adaptive technology, announced Thursday along with an inaugural $2.5 million investment from Microsoft, once suffered through a two-year period when debilitating back issues left him unable to sit. So, when exploring new tech possibilities, Wobbrock, 44, reminds himself that standing all day was once his normal and to never assume people can all perform the same tasks equally.
“The world we live in is built on certain assumptions,’’ Wobbrock said. “If we question those assumptions right from the start when we design things, then suddenly things are accessible.’’
The Center for Research and Education on Accessible Technology and Experience (CREATE) is launching with a nine-member, interdisciplinary faculty led by Wobbrock and co-director Jennifer Mankoff. It will seek to evolve from “one-off’’ projects the university conducted with Microsoft throughout multiple departments the past decade into a hub for creating adaptive technology and exploring practical ways of integrating it into mainstream products.
“What this CREATE center is going to do is bring us together … to really begin to look for bigger opportunities to work together and take on larger and more challenging projects,’’ Wobbrock said, adding that while Microsoft is a founding partner, the center envisions “bringing in many other community partners, nonprofits and other corporate partners.’’
CREATE will initially include only doctorate and some master’s students, though the intent is to eventually integrate undergraduates as well. It has a $10 million fundraising target Wobbrock said will sustain five years of operations.
While the center will exist “under one roof’’ from an organizational standpoint, it doesn’t yet have a designated UW building — though he hopes it will eventually.
“We are proud to partner with the UW on their journey to build the CREATE center,” Microsoft president Brad Smith said in a news release. “This is the next step in a longstanding journey to empower people with disabilities with accessibility and technology advancements.’’
UW president Ana Mari Cauce said in the same release: “CREATE will help us take accessible technology research and education from small, incremental gains to true breakthroughs. This chance to advance inclusion and participation for people of all abilities is the kind of opportunity that inspires the entire UW community.”
A big part of the center’s mission will be “translation” efforts to integrate any newfound tech beyond the theoretical and into mainstream use.
Wobbrock said most people don’t realize how widespread adaptive technology has become, with closed-captioning on televisions, text-enlarging on smartphone screens and even speech-to-text transcribing tools frequently used in videoconferencing during the coronavirus pandemic all created to help those with disabilities.
A positive development, he added, is tech like the text-enlarging function now a standard option on most smartphones.
“In the past, you’d have technology put out and then assistive technology that had to be added on,’’ Wobbrock said. “And that doesn’t always integrate as well. We’re seeing more and more of a push to add that technology from the beginning so it’s accessible to everyone.’’
And that means anticipating what others might need without assuming; remembering that, not long ago, even sitting in a chair was once a luxury he couldn’t partake in.