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URI researcher aims to help people with disabilities better navigate their computers, smartphones

Krishna Venkatasubramanian is working to solve the technological inequity that requires dexterity in the arms and hands

Krishna Venkatasubramanian, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Rhode Island.Anna Vaccaro

The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Edward Fitzpatrick at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com.

This week’s conversation is with Krishna Venkatasubramanian, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Rhode Island.

Q: Tell us about your research. What will you do with the $500,000 grant you received from the National Science Foundation?

Venkatasubramanian: The authentication solutions that let us log into our computing devices — such as laptops, PCs, smartphones, and tablets — are usually created with nondisabled persons in mind. They often require a complex set of actions, such as typing, positioning sensors to measure biometrics like the face or an iris. Those actions require the ability to dexterously use your arms, hands, and fingers.


But this focus on the nondisabled leaves the authentication solutions deficient when it comes to people with disabilities, particularly for those with upper extremity impairment (UEI). A person affected by UEI is someone who lacks range of motion, strength, endurance, speed, and/or accuracy, in moving their shoulders, upper arms, forearms, hands, and fingers.

Right now, a lot of people with UEI are frustrated with the authentication solutions available to them, which leads them to often disable authentication on their devices altogether or to use authentication in an insecure way — with easily predictable short passwords or personal identification numbers. In this proposal, we aim to do two things: Understand how people with UEI use authentication on their computing devices and, based on these findings, develop AssistiveAuth, a suite of authentication solutions for people with UEI that allows them to independently and easily control access to their computing devices.

In general, people with disabilities face a severe disparity in the cybersecurity solutions available to them. This project aims to reduce that disparity by developing authentication solutions that meet the needs of an often-marginalized population.


Q: What are some of the causes of upper-extremity impairments that can limit the ability to access computers and smartphones?

Venkatasubramanian: Upper-extremity impairment manifests in people for a variety of reasons, including traumatic injuries such as spinal cord injury, diseases such as osteoarthritis, and congenital conditions such as cerebral palsy.

Q: What innovations might help people
log into their devices?

Venkatasubramanian: The innovations of this project will not be in new hardware but rather in software that can work with existing hardware (computing devices and associated assistive technologies) to provide a seamless authentication experience of people with UEI. The software we develop could be novel in their own right or augment the way existing authentication solutions work.

For example, we are investigating newer solutions that are based on eye-gaze trackers, using voice patterns, and novel ways of sharing passwords/PINs with caregivers in a secure manner. Hopefully, we can increase the options available for people with UEI to authenticate to their devices.

Q: How does this project differ from past research to help people with disabilities?

Venkatasubramanian: There has been lots of work done on helping people with disabilities, in academic research at least. Lots. This project differs in two important ways:

First, it focuses on the intersection of cybersecurity for people with disabilities, which broadly speaking is an under-investigated area of research.


Secondly, our approach to the solutions is to not impose our ideas as technologists on the community of individuals with UEI, but rather to observe and learn from the community and develop solutions that work for the lifestyles, workflows, and assistive technologies that they already use.

My PhD student, Brittany Lewis, has done a lot of work in understanding how people with UEI work with such devices. She recently wrote a paper titled ” ‘I . . . Got my Nose-Print. But It Wasn’t Accurate’: How People with Upper Extremity Impairment Authenticate on their Personal Computing Devices.” It has been (conditionally) accepted for publication at the 2021 ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, the premier international conference on human-computer interaction, to be held virtually in May.

Q: What is TechACCESS of Rhode Island and what role will it play in this project?

Venkatasubramanian: TechACCESS of Rhode Island (a subsidiary of Horace Mann Educational Associates) provides assistive technology services to individuals with disabilities. Their focus is to help individuals use technology to gain access to things that many people take for granted, such as communication, learning, literacy, and correspondence.

TechACCESS of Rhode Island plays a crucial role in this project. They help us with identifying potential volunteers for the validation of our solutions, providing critical feedback on our authentication solutions, and engaging other disabilities-focused institutions able to help with outreach and participant recruitment for our studies. We work on this project with Kelly Charlebois and Matthew Provost at TechACCESS of Rhode Island, both experts in assistive technologies.


Q: What do you hope is the end result of this research? What changes do you envision?

Venkatasubramanian: Accessibility research like ours always leads to innovation, even though it is often seen as an afterthought. For example, if we are able to develop solutions for authentication that work for people who cannot use their arms dexterously, it will make everyone’s life better, whether they have upper-extremity impairment or not.

The end result for this project will be three things, hopefully: an increase in awareness that people with UEI need better authentication solutions so that their needs are met; a better understanding of what the needs for people with UEI are with respect to authentication; and authentication solutions that provide seamless authentication for people with UEI in a way that least disrupts their computing use.

Based on the fundamental research we do in this project, hopefully the computers and smartphones in the future will have features dedicated to help people with UEI to log in easily — that is, keep their devices and data secure without sacrificing usability.

Q: Can you tell us about your prior work on an app-based tool to help people with intellectual and developmental disabilities report sexual abuse?

Venkatasubramanian: That is a different ongoing project that The Boston Globe reported on in February. It is a collaboration between my research group at URI, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Massachusetts Disabled Persons Protection Commission, Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services, and Massachusetts Advocates Standing Strong.


We are investigating and designing solutions for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to recognize and report all types of abuse (not just sexual abuse). We spent considerable time in this project to understand the lived experience of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (vis-a-vis abuse), and their technology use.

Overall, we found that an app would be viable for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. We also found that, before reporting, we need to facilitate recognition of abuse. We are therefore working on an app that provides a refresher for an abuse prevention workshop training curriculum, called Awareness and Action. The next step would be to design a reporting tool/app. We are now generating the preliminary design criteria for such an app.

Q: What got you interested in human-focused computing?

Venkatasubramanian: It was a change for me from what I was doing before, that’s for sure. It was a logical extension of an obvious observation. We all have experienced situational impairment when we struggle to use our technology — such as a fingerprint sensor malfunctioning when used with wet or dry fingers, or a mask preventing people from using face recognition on our phone.

Now, if someone’s impairment was long-term, imagine how difficult technology use must be for them. Once you make that observation, it is impossible to see the world in any other way. You see technological inequities everywhere. There is no going back.

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.