An independent life and full participation in all areas of society are goals of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The parties to this Convention have committed to ensuring equal access to the physical environment and to information and communication. Research of the new real-world lab “Accessibility” of Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) will focus on how digital technologies together with the architecture of buildings and cities, can enable equal and self-determined social participation.
“It is our goal to build a bridge between people, technologies, and their environment. For this reason, we combine computer science research with architecture research,” Professor Kathrin Gerling says, whose research focuses on human-computer interaction. Together with architect Professor Caroline Karmann, she holds the first of several new tandem professorships at KIT. Within these tandem professorships, two persons – one from the humanities and social sciences and one from engineering and natural sciences – carry out scientific work together. “We jointly study interfaces between technology, the built environment, and humans living in it. This way, we explore the potentials of new technologies to lower barriers for persons with disabilities,” Karmann explains. The goal is to make society more inclusive.
Interaction of Assistive Systems and Architecture for More Participation
Kathrin Gerling studies accessibility of interactive, body-centered technologies, such as wearable systems or virtual reality, focusing on assistance and participation. “We need to achieve accessibility that extends beyond the mere overcoming of obstacles and provides users with positive and enriching experiences,” the computer scientist says. Together with Karmann, she will study how technologies can be combined with architecture to lower barriers, and how they can be leveraged by disabled people to improve their quality of life.
Work of Caroline Karmann focuses on the climate-aware planning and design of barrier-free buildings and cities to support a self-determined life of persons with disabilities. “When we talk about inclusion in the built environment, it means that all people feel welcome and part of the environment. Take a building on campus: how can the entrance, signage, room sequencing, lighting and acoustics improve the legibility of the environment for people with visual impairments, for example? Integrating technology can also lead to new solutions. For example, could digital walk-throughs of spaces help users before they get in an unknown location? Our research questions relate to the safety and comfort of spaces for all, and it is important for us to raise questions and co-develop our solutions with people with disabilities,” the architect says.
ACCESS@KIT Supports Students with Visual Impairments
In contrast to research in a controlled atmosphere behind closed doors, science at a real-world lab takes place in interaction with humans. That is why Gerling and Karmann cooperate closely with ACCESS@KIT, KIT’s Center for Digital Accessibility and Assistive Technology. It supports students with disabilities at KIT, including some 30 students with visual impairments.
Real-world Lab Professorships: Research for Society
As KIT attaches crucial importance to transformative research at the interface to society, it will establish four new real-world labs from 2022 to 2025. At each of them, a professor of the humanities/social sciences will cooperate closely with a professor of engineering or natural sciences. KIT’s tandem professorship concept is the only interdisciplinary approach of its kind. The real-world lab professorships are part of the 100 Professors Program that is intended to make KIT’s cutting-edge research even more efficient and agile within the next ten years. The real-world labs will focus on autonomous systems, human-machine interaction and accessibility, risk management, and on risk strategies for the decentralized energy transition.
Being “The Research University in the Helmholtz Association”, KIT creates and imparts knowledge for the society and the environment. It is the objective to make significant contributions to the global challenges in the fields of energy, mobility, and information. For this, about 9,800 employees cooperate in a broad range of disciplines in natural sciences, engineering sciences, economics, and the humanities and social sciences. KIT prepares its 22,300 students for responsible tasks in society, industry, and science by offering research-based study programs. Innovation efforts at KIT build a bridge between important scientific findings and their application for the benefit of society, economic prosperity, and the preservation of our natural basis of life. KIT is one of the German universities of excellence.