The University of California, Santa Cruz, is offering a new general education course on universal access and assistive technology, enabling students from all majors to learn more about disability and the issues that surround it.

The course is taught by Roberto Manduchi, an associate professor of computer engineering whose research includes work on assistive technology. Assistive technology refers to equipment that allows people with disabilities to function in the day-to-day world. Universal access is the goal of assistive technology, which seeks to enable everyone, disabled or not, to communicate and participate in society.

According to Manduchi, the new course is unique in that it addresses both the technological aspects of disabilities and the implications of disability on a personal and societal level.

"There is some technology involved, because this is an engineering course. But mostly the emphasis is on understanding the physiology, psychology, and sociology of disability," Manduchi said.

The course is aimed at anyone interested in the subject, but will be required for those pursuing UCSC's new bioengineering major. Called Universal Access: Disability, Technology, and Society, it will be offered every year and has no prerequisites. The students who are taking the class this year are evenly distributed among engineering, social sciences, humanities, and physical and biological sciences, Manduchi said.

The class incorporates invited guest lecturers to give the students as many perspectives on disability as possible. These include experts who study disability, professionals who work with people with disabilities, and disabled people themselves. Manduchi himself spent almost 10 years working on robot vision before deciding to apply that knowledge to helping blind people. He thought it would be easy, but soon learned otherwise.

"Most engineers are like me. They start proposing solutions to the problem of disability without knowing what the problems are," Manduchi said. "After a while, I realized that you could not start from an engineering point of view. You need to talk to people and understand all the issues that go along with disability. Then you can start trying to solve the problem."

In his research, Manduchi addresses the problem of blindness by engineering equipment that helps blind people sense their environment. He developed what he calls a "laser cane" that can sense obstacles in a person's path. He is also working on a computer mouse that translates onscreen features into tactile sensations, like the feedback sensors on some video-game controllers. Another project involves using the camera and computer in a cellular phone to "look" for things like bathrooms and elevators in an unfamiliar environment.

Peggy Church, director of the Disability Resource Center on campus, and her staff provided resources and information that helped Manduchi design the new course. Church called the class an important contribution to broadening students' awareness of disability.

"When people think of diversity, they think of ethnic diversity and gender, but not about disability," she said.

The course includes a project that requires students to immerse themselves in a facet of the disability issue. Manduchi said this could include learning some American Sign Language or spending 24 hours with a person with a disability. Manduchi said he hopes that his course will give students an opportunity to explore a field and an issue they might otherwise not have thought about.

"I think the right way to deal with disability is knowledge: getting to know what disability means and entails," Manduchi said.

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Note to reporters: You may contact Roberto Manduchi at (831) 459-1479 or manduchi@soe.ucsc.edu. More information is available on his web site.