Championing Inclusion

Photograph by Mark Blinch

Originally published in The Globe and Mail. Content from Research and Innovation.

Ryerson professor Deborah Fels’ innovations have helped a diverse range of users – from kids who were missing school because they were often in hospital to creative artists who are blind or have low vision, deaf or hard of hearing.

From the Internet and cloud computing to robotics and artificial intelligence, technology over the last two decades has evolved and transformed into increasingly sophisticated innovations.

For Deborah Fels, director of the Inclusive Media and Design Centre at Ryerson University in Toronto, one thing has stayed constant through the years: her belief in using technology to break barriers for people whose disabilities often keep them from engaging more fully in their communities.

“I’m an engineer who believes in the power of innovative technology to serve people with disabilities,” says Dr. Fels, a professor at Ryerson’s Ted Rogers School of Information Technology Management. “That’s the point of inclusive design.”

Dr. Fels’ work has helped a diverse range of users – from kids who were missing school because they were often in hospital to creative artists who are blind or have low vision, deaf or hard of hearing. For example, her PEBBLES robot – which helped more than 30 Canadian kids go to school via videoconference from their hospital beds – was later commercialized and evolved into the “WebChair” and used by more than 400 students in Europe.

PEBBLES also evolved into the Emoti-chair – a “vibrotactile” technology that uses low-intensity vibrations to convey sounds to people who are hard of hearing. The Emoti-chair features eight channels of 16 speakers that run alongside the user’s spine.

“We were asked by the deaf community to provide better access to sound than what captioning provides, which basically tries to describe or name sounds,” explains Dr. Fels. “We found that low-intensity vibration added a lot to the missing soundtrack.”

The Emoti-chair led to the development of WebMoti, which connects children with autism spectrum disorder to their classroom.

“People with autism have overloaded senses, which is why a lot of them have so much trouble in classrooms and noisy environments,” says Dr. Fels. “What WebMoti does is allow students to study outside the classroom while maintaining a remote presence in class. Students can control what stimulation they’re getting by turning off video but maintaining audio or by adding low-intensity vibration.”

We found that low-intensity vibration added a lot to the missing soundtrack.
– Dr. Deborah Fels Director of the Inclusive Media and Design Centre at Ryerson University

This innovation has opened the door to a new, vibrotactile art form, which now has its own creation space, the VibraFusion Lab in London, Ont. Together with hard-of-hearing new media artist David Bobier, Dr. Fels co-founded the VibraFusion Lab four years ago as a development lab, educational centre and presentation space for vibrotactile expression.

Close to 40 Canadian and international artists have performed and led workshops at the lab, whose model has been replicated in Toronto, the Dominican Republic and London, U.K.

With the pervasiveness of the Internet as a mode for sharing information, Dr. Fels identified a need to create sign language websites without using written text. The resulting innovation is SignLinkStudio, created specifically for designers of websites for the deaf community.

“Deaf people have a visual culture – they sign to communicate, while written language is all about sounds and not much to do with visuals,” she says.

Instead of content and links in text, SignLinkStudio uses videos to communicate information. Like most of Dr. Fels’ work, this innovation led to another: a kiosk where people can make short videos of their experiences in activities such as shopping or dining – much like Yelp or Google reviews but with video.

“So now we have something that’s more accessible to a deaf audience,” says Dr. Fels, noting that this innovation subsequently led to a technology that allows patients to share their stories with health-care providers through short videos.

More than two decades after she took the reins at the Inclusive Media and Design Centre, Dr. Fels continues to find new ways to use technology to ensure everyone is engaged in this age of information. She recently started a program called Lab Elders, where retired scientists, engineers and other technology experts work with Ryerson students and give them guidance on their projects.

“It’s a great way for retired older adults to get involved and use their expertise to contribute to the next wave of innovation,” she says.

The case for innovation in diversity and inclusion

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by Wendy Cukier, Vice-President, Research & Innovation

I recently presented to a room full of women at the Electricity Distributors Association’s Women Connected event, which featured a series of talks aimed at women in the energy industry.

The room was definitely energized as I delved into the subject of diversity. The research confirms what many women experience on a daily basis: in order to make room for diversity, we need to apply what we know about innovation to solve the problem.

Continue reading The case for innovation in diversity and inclusion

Creating a culture of innovation in the public sector

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by Wendy Cukier, Vice-President, Research & Innovation

The Ontario Public Service has said it’s ready to innovate.
On April 16th, during World Creativity and Innovation Week, I led a session on innovation and system change for the Ontario Public Service (OPS) staff. Steve Orsini, Secretary of Cabinet and head of the OPS, joined me at the workshop attended by nearly 100 public service staff to discuss some of the obstacles to innovation.

Continue reading Creating a culture of innovation in the public sector

Innovation a topic of interest during pre-budget consultations with Finance Minister Bill Morneau.

by Wendy Cukier, Vice-President, Research & Innovation

During his stop in Toronto for pre-budget consultations with stakeholders, Finance Minister Bill Morneau heard from numerous experts on the topic of innovation, infrastructure and the environment at the Canadian Public Policy Forum. I participated as a panelist focusing on innovation along with Eme Onuoha, CIO Xerox Services and John Ruffolo, CEO OMERS Ventures. We, along with Minister Morneau, agreed that investing in a strong innovation ecosystem in Canada is necessary to create a foundation for economic prosperity.

Continue reading Innovation a topic of interest during pre-budget consultations with Finance Minister Bill Morneau.

Ryerson’s Changemakers

by Wendy Cukier, Vice-President, Research & Innovation

During the recent Ryerson Changemaking Project Showcase which highlighted innovative work being done by faculty and students. In 2014, Ryerson received $500,000 from RECODE, an initiative created by the J.W. McConnell Foundation to catalyze social innovation and entrepreneurship in post-secondary institutions across Canada. Continue reading Ryerson’s Changemakers

Highlights of the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor

by Wendy Cukier, Vice-President, Research & Innovation

Ryerson is widely recognized as a leader in entrepreneurship education, with the largest program in the country. Ryerson’s Entrepreneurship Research Institute (ERI) is spearheading new research into entrepreneurial opportunities to look at how they can be encouraged. In addition to examining diversity, social entrepreneurship, and innovative training programs, Ryerson’s researchers are part of the world’s largest study of transnational entrepreneurship, the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM), acting as GEM’s lead for research in Ontario. Continue reading Highlights of the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor

Ryerson University Research and Innovation in The Globe and Mail

The following editorial ran in The Globe and Mail on Nov. 16.

Creating an ecosystem where startups and dynamic companies thrive

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/partners/advresearchandinnovation2015/creating-an-ecosystem-where-startups-and-dynamic-companies-thrive/article27237032/ Continue reading Ryerson University Research and Innovation in The Globe and Mail

More than technology push is needed to drive innovation

Ryerson partners with industry, government and community organizations to make things happen. Our unique cross-disciplinary approach not only drives the creation of new technologies, products, services, and ventures, but also examines the drivers and impediments to change in existing organizations.

Research in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) is necessary butinsufficient. We need social sciences and humanities research to better understand user needs, organizational drivers, factors shaping personal preferences and behaviour, aesthetic and content design, as well as policy, legal, and ethical issues. We need to understand the demand side as well as the supply side to drive innovation. Continue reading More than technology push is needed to drive innovation

Dr. Cukier on innovation in 3D technology in The Globe and Mail

“Canada went from a leader to a laggard in innovation strategy … and needs a refresh,” Dr. Wendy Cukier, vice-president of research and innovation at Ryerson University, said at the conference. The transformative application of 3-D has the potential to change everything, she said, “but if new technologies, services or processes are not actually adopted, there is no innovation.” She believes consumers tend to be ahead of business users in adoption of new technologies, although 47 per cent of jobs in North America linked to the manufacturing economy could be at risk. Continue reading Dr. Cukier on innovation in 3D technology in The Globe and Mail

Dr. Cukier on Syrian Refugees in the Toronto Star

The following editorial was published Sept. 3 in the Toronto Star. Dr. Cukier is a founding member of Operation Lifeline Syria. She is a team leader sponsoring a Syrian refugee family through Ryerson University’s Lifeline Syria Challenge.

 

Alan Kurdi is only one of four million Syrian refugees and at least seven million internally displaced refugees who have fled violence seeking safe haven. Governments around the world must do more and Canada must reclaim its traditional place as a world leader in humanitarian action and peacebuilding. But, we as individuals cannot hide behind the pretense of powerlessness. We can make a difference. Tears are not enough. Continue reading Dr. Cukier on Syrian Refugees in the Toronto Star