PEOPLE: “Often by designing activities for people with disabilities we create better activities for everyone” – Dr Kirsten Ellis

As part of our National Science Week series, Dr Kirsten Ellis shares why she built TapeBlocks, where the idea came from, and why building products for people with disabilities benefits the whole of society.

  • What originally sparked the idea for TapeBlocks?

In the past, I have run an electronic textile workshop where people are able to sew a circuit which has been used to introduce a new group to circuit making. This is a different approach to circuit making than traditional breadboards and soldering wires but I found that a lot of people still had difficulties with the fine motor skills required to build circuits so I wanted to create an activity that anyone could do, no matter what their abilities were.

  • How does TapeBlocks work?

TapeBlocks are based on children foam blocks that are wrapped in conductive fabric tape with electronic components placed either on top or underneath. The conductive tape acts as the wire so to make a circuit you just have to push the blocks together. TapeBlocks include a power block that holds the battery carrier. This is connected to a Light Emitting Diode (LED) to create a light circuit. The blocks can also include vibration motors, buzzers, buttons and fans.

  • Why is it important for science and STEM engagement activities to be inclusive, particularly for people with disabilities?
  1. People with disabilities should be included in STEM engagement activities as full members of the community. 
  2. Often by designing activities for people with disabilities we create better activities for everyone. TapeBlocks are a great for people who have a disability but they are also useful for children, the elderly and to build confidence for people who have previously had bad experiences with electronics. 
  3. Including people who have a disability in STEM activities also helps to change perceptions of what they can do if the activity is designed well
  • What are some actions STEM professionals can be taking to keep themselves accountable when it comes to inclusivity in their workforces and the products they are building?

When STEM professionals are making products, they are building them for everyone in the community, that includes people who have a disability who are also clients. It is important to make products that are accessible to all clients, not just some of them. Having an inclusive workforce is really important because when we are making products, how do we know what the wider community needs if they are not active participants in the entire creation process including discussions on the design and user testing at the end. Many errors in product development can be avoided by actively engaging a full range of people in the development process.

About the expert

Kirsten Ellis is enthusiastic about using technology to create a more inclusive society. She brings together technology and creativity to produce innovative solutions to real world problems. Her research interests include human computer interaction where she utilises her experience in designing, developing and evaluating systems for people to advance the field of inclusive technologies.

Kirsten has an eclectic list of qualifications with a PhD in Information technology in addition to graduate qualifications in arts and education and a bachelors in applied science.

Kirsten started her career in storyboarding and designing games prior to moving in to academia.  She has built her research with 1.3 million is grants from the ARC, NGOs and philanthropic organisation researching how to build great resources to support people with disabilities. Her research includes: technology for teaching sign language using the Kinect to provide feedback to learners; attention training for children with intellectual disabilities; fatigue management for cancer survivors and collecting clinical data for bipolar diagnosis. In addition, she likes to play with eTextiles and call it research into innovative technologies. This play is used to develop tangible objects that can be used to create authentic learning experiences such as simulations.

Image description: Photo of Kirsten sitting at a table with a scattering of coloured TapeBlocks on it, holding a few TapeBlocks in her hand. She is smiling and looking slightly upwards, with short brown hair and is wearing a white collared shirt and black blazer.