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TU professors study computer interface issues for people with Down syndrome

TU professors Jinjuan Feng and Jonathan Lazar
TU professors Jinjuan Feng and Jonathan Lazar

TOWSON, Md. (December 2, 2009) - Professors Jonathan Lazar and Jinjuan Feng, Department of Computer and Information Sciences, were recently awarded a National Science Foundation grant titled “Computer Interface Issues for Young Adults with Down Syndrome to Transition to the Workplace” in partnership with a collaborator at Loyola University Maryland. It was funded under the Early-Concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) program, which supports exploratory work in its early stages on untested, but potentially transformative, research ideas or approaches. EAGER grants propose radically different approaches, new expertise, or novel disciplinary or interdisciplinary perspectives. This research, which examines Human Computer Interaction (HCI) of people with Down syndrome, is a novel approach in the investigation of computer usability for people with cognitive impairments. To date, there is a limited amount of research that focuses specifically on computer users with Down syndrome. Much of the previous research groups place individuals with Down syndrome into the general category of “people with cognitive impairments,” including those with autism and Williams syndrome, without specifically considering the strengths and weaknesses of people with Down syndrome. Because of this new approach, the research is a perfect fit for the EAGER program. 

The study will examine both experienced and typical users with Down syndrome. This will include observing and documenting their strategies and challenges with computer interaction. In particular, the research team will investigate the usability of security mechanisms, believing that effective use of security mechanisms on computer networks, such as typed passwords and human-interaction proofs, are the keys to successful employment later in life. Human Interaction Proof Universally Usable (HIPUU) - a Web-based security tool developed by Lazar’s research team - offers sounds and images rather than lettered codes, making it more accessible for a number of different user populations. The HIPUU tool will be evaluated for use by people with Down syndrome. Since social networking Web sites are also commonly used both for workplace and personal communication, a number of individuals with Down syndrome will evaluate these tools to determine how small modifications can improve the user experience.

The overall goal of this research is to determine what new interfaces can be developed, or how current interfaces can be improved, to increase computer usability for people with Down syndrome, therefore increasing the likelihood of future employment in the workplace. “We know that the specific strengths and weaknesses of people with Down syndrome are unique, and that this group is both social and communicative,” Lazar says. “If we can improve their computer usability so that it leads to future employment, we can enhance their overall quality of life.”

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