Clemson apps turn phones into personal assistants for people with intellectual disabilities By Michael Staton, Clemson University

Students and faculty at Clemson University have developed two smartphone apps to provide practical, real-world assistance to help people with intellectual disabilities maintain employment and live independently. The ClemsonLIFE Task Analysis app aids individuals in the completion of everyday tasks for home and work, while the ClemsonLIFE Meal Planner app helps users develop a weekly meal plan, manage inventory in a pantry and populate a grocery list that ensures they buy required food items each week.

The apps were developed through a collaboration between the College of Education’s ClemsonLIFE program and the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences’ School of Computing. Joe Ryan is the founder and executive director of ClemsonLIFE, a program that provides postsecondary education for students with intellectual disabilities. He said the apps are the product of years of work with his students in mind, but their reach will go far beyond Clemson, helping individuals with disabilities everywhere gain employment and live more independently.

“At Clemson we don’t want to just focus on inclusivity for these students on a college campus; we want to prioritize getting these students ready for life and work in the outside world,” Ryan said. “These apps are tools we can give anyone with an intellectual disability to help them in a practical way every day of their life.”

Clemson University professor emeritus Roy Pargas, former director of Human-Centered Computing for the School of Computing, and student Joseph Costa, a senior studying computer science, discuss the two smartphone apps they helped develop that help people with intellectual disabilities do day-to-day tasks. (Photo by Ken Scar)

Roy Pargas, associate professor emeritus in the School of Computing, led the technical aspects of the project devoted to producing the apps. He said the apps require parent or guardian support, at least initially, to input information regarding specific tasks or create meal sizes and preferences for each individual.

Clemson University student Joseph Costa, a senior studying computer science, points out some of the easy-to-use features in the meal planner app. (Photo by Ken Scar)

The task analysis app, for example, does not come preloaded with step-by-step instructions for generic tasks since this will vary with each person’s needs. According to Ryan, the app provides tremendous flexibility to the user and allows them to tailor instructions to the individual. This is critical since instructions for operating a dishwasher or microwave can differ across multiple brands with hundreds of models. A parent or guardian can load audio, video and photos for each step of a task, with all the information saved directly to the individual’s smartphone.

The task app also supports “geo-fencing,” which allows the app to pinpoint the student’s location. Factoring in location allows the app to limit the type and number of tasks the user will see based on location. If the student is at their job, home-related tasks are hidden from view and vice versa, thus preventing the app’s screen from becoming cluttered and confusing. Pargas said this consideration was one of several challenges that caused the technical team to re-evaluate its approach to properly meet the unique needs of individuals with intellectual disabilities.

“Accessibility features and things like visuals, reading ability and audio feedback were things we never had to consider before in this much detail,” said Joey Costa, a senior computer science student on the Creative Inquiry team working under Pargas. “It was rewarding to work with ClemsonLIFE students and special education doctoral students to build apps that are tailor made for a specific audience.”

Zachary Buchanan is a student beginning his fourth year in the ClemsonLIFE program. He recently enjoyed a trial run using the task analysis app to do laundry, and reported that he would find the apps helpful both at home and on the job at a local grocery store. Zachary’s younger brother, Sam Buchanan, said Zachary has occasionally required help from family members to complete chores and cooking that goes beyond microwaved meals. Sam said he is excited by the open-ended possibilities for his brother afforded by the app.

“I think it’s brilliant to only show Zach what is useful for him based on where he physically is,” Sam said. “The fact that the app will allow us to give him specific instruction on how to handle meals with multiple pots and pans will also have him eating healthier.”

Sam Buchanan helps his brother, Zachary, get familiar with a smartphone app developed through a collaboration between Clemson’s College of Education and College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences’ School of Computing designed to provide practical, real-world assistance for people with intellectual disabilities, July 12, 2017. Zachary is a senior in the ClemsonLIFE program. (Photo by Ken Scar)

The meal planner app enables individuals with intellectual disabilities to design a personalized menu for the week while helping them inventory their pantry and identify items needed at the grocery store. According to Ryan, these tasks have been challenging for many ClemsonLIFE students to accomplish independently.

However, even members of the design team admitted this app could help them shop more efficiently. Ryan shared that on more than one occasion he has searched his pantry to make a sandwich only to find three jars of peanut butter and no jelly in sight.

The inventory feature of the app provided another challenge for the technical team. Instead of describing how much food was left using fractions, feedback from ClemsonLIFE students indicated the app would be better understood featuring a visual, color-coded bar where red signified empty and green signified a full stock.

Clemson University student Joseph Costa, a senior studying computer science, displays a grocery list in the meal planner app. (Photo by Ken Scar)

Work on the apps began in fall 2014 when Ryan approached Pargas to collaborate on the Creative Inquiry project. They felt the project would be perfect for Creative Inquiry, which is defined by undergraduate researcher involvement and multidisciplinary work.

The project launched nearly three years of collaboration between ClemsonLIFE and the School of Computing that Pargas said was defined by a healthy exchange of ideas and feedback. Everyone involved is excited to finally have the apps available in the Apple App Store for those with intellectual disabilities and other audiences that might benefit, such as young children and seniors.

“The concepts and input from ClemsonLIFE gave us something to which we could apply our technical skills,” Pargas said. “Our skills get us nowhere without ideas, and this kind of collaboration is what is the most gratifying for me.”

Zacharey Buchanan, 25, a senior in Clemson University’s ClemsonLIFE program, uses a smartphone app developed through a collaboration between Clemson’s College of Education and College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences’ School of Computing designed to provide practical, real-world assistance for people with intellectual disabilities, July 12, 2017. (Photo by Ken Scar)

The apps were made available through the Apple iTunes store on July 15 and will be announced publicly by Joe Ryan at the National Down Syndrome Congress Convention in Sacramento, California from July 21 to July 23.

ClemsonLIFE (Learning is for Everyone) supports the concept that enhancing academic, social, employment and life skills will better prepare students with disabilities to lead full and productive lives. It is a comprehensive post-secondary education program designed to help young adults with intellectual disabilities gain employment and live independently. The program started in 2009 under the direction of Ryan, its founder. The program has grown from a handful of students to its current enrollment of 37 students this fall, supported by seven full-time staff, five part-time staff and seven undergraduate students who work for the program.

To easily find the apps on in the Apple iTunes Store, search “taskanalysislite” and “mealplannerlite” (no spaces). The app creators welcome any and all feedback to improve the apps in the future.

Zachary and Sam Buchanan on the Clemson University campus. (Photo by Ken Scar)
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