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MI student Alexander Parent finds a very personal niche in accessibility design and research 

Submitted on Monday, May 06, 2024

As a student with a mild form of cerebral palsy that affects the right side of his body, Alexander Parent began his studies at the Faculty of Information with a strong interest in both design and critical disability studies. Over the course of his Master of Information program, he not only found his calling in accessibility work, but also discovered a love of research which led to New York University, where he will pursue a PHD in Rehabilitation Sciences starting next fall. 

Parent attributes much of his success to the mentorship he received both from faculty members and more senior students. In his first year, he worked in Assistant Professor Priyank Chandra’s STREET Lab, which has developed a specialization in accessibility, and learned from the students behind the Accessibility Arcade, which aims to get creative with technology to come up with more inclusive games.  

Together with fellow students, Parent attended the 2023 Level Up Showcase, which features the best in game design, animation and computer science programs from colleges and universities across Ontario, to spread the word even further. “It was my first big public facing work that I did in terms of design and accessibility,” says Parent, who is in the User Experience Design concentration with a collaborative specialization in Knowledge Media Design. 

At the same time, Parent was realizing how much he enjoyed research work with “people as partners and co-designers,” an approach he studied in Chandra’s Accessibility and Inclusive Design course. 

Scenes from a Dis/Usability workshop

Alexander Parent (seated in blue shirt) helps adapt toys for children with disabilities at a Dis/Usability workshop held in the Faculty of Information’s Makerspace.

“I feel like designing technology in a vacuum isn’t beneficial. And it potentially can be dangerous and risky if you don’t talk with communities and others to understand what technology you need to make for those people,” says Parent. “A big discussion in our field is learning how to do this in partnership, in a co-design way, rather than how it’s been done historically.” 

As the chair of the student-run Accessibility Interests Working Group (AIWG), a role he took on in his second year, Parent worked to put theory into practice, designing adaptive toys for children with disabilities. Using the resources in the Faculty of Information’s Makerspace and in partnership with Makers Making Change, an organization that 3D prints assistive devices for people with disabilities, the AIWG and Prof. Chandra’s STREET Lab put on a workshop about how to modify toys using 3D-printed parts. 

“I’m really proud of that event because a bunch of people not only got to learn skills, in terms of how to make things, but also to have critical conversations about why this is important,” said Parent. 

In two subsequent workshops, held by popular demand, students continued working on remote control cars that could be operated by children who might not have the strength or fine motor skills to use the small buttons on the controller. They rewired the controller to connect 3D printed parts and electronics together to make large buttons for the controller, which would allow kids to use their whole hand, elbow or another body part to operate the cars. The modified toys were then donated to ErinoakKids, the treatment and development centre that Parent attended as a child. 

Alexander Parent portrait

As the first member of his family to attend university, Alexander Parent is  “blown away” that he will be doing doctoral studies in New York. 

Parent’s interest in “do-it-yourself assistive devices” led Chandra to suggest his student look at the work of New York University’s Amy Hurst, a pioneer in working collaboratively with people with disabilities in a makerspace. “It was the ideal fit for the kind of work I want to do in the future,” says Parent, who contacted Hurst to discuss his research and how he would be discussing her work in his thesis.  

As a result of their discussions, he eventually applied to NYU and received a fellowship to pursue his PhD there, something that he says he never anticipated when he first enrolled at the Faculty of Information. As the first member of his family to attend university, he thought the Master’s degree would be the capstone of his studies and he is still “blown away” that he will be doing doctoral studies in New York. 

With his thesis – which explores what it means have a disability and to put DIY assistive technology to use – still to be completed over the summer, Parent will officially graduate in the fall of 2024. He is already planning to return from New York for the ceremony, which is not surprising considering that he is committed to keeping in touch. To help build a network of accessibility professionals, the AIWG has, among other things, set up an Instagram account and Discord channel. 

“We need to continue to have the discussions that we began even after we’ve graduated,” says Parent. “What we do as designers matters and who we involve as equals in the process matters.”