When I was young my parents had nursing homes, and I grew up in and around them. I learnt wheelchairs were certainly not well designed to push older people around a path; they were instead very good at pummelling the occupant in the back. I would spend my afternoons after school pumping wheelchair wheels, trying to adapt remote controls so that people who couldn’t see or had had a stroke could use them; and generally running around answering bells and talking to people. I loved it.
I also spent hours running around the garden kicking a football with my brother Ed, and a few years later with my ‘baby brothers’ Dom and Patch. They continue to be a source of happiness.
When I was 12 or so we moved back to Ireland and it was in Ireland I developed my love of science and maths, and was convinced that a degree in engineering might just suit me better.
I graduated from NUI Galway (which I highly recommend as a city and a place of study) with a Degree in Industrial Engineering, specialising in Design Engineering. I then worked at Medtronic as an R&D Engineer for a while before deciding to return to assistive technology.
In 2006, I started my PhD investigating the biomechanics of outdoor environments on wheelchair biomechanics. I will later write about the ups and downs of the years that led to my graduating in 2011 with my PhD in Transport Studies. The highlights had been a JSPS fellowship at Kansai University, Japan and meeting Peter Smitham with whom I later formed a start-up social enterprise.
From 2010- 2012 I was the led the Accessibility Research Group and also the UCL PAMELA facility. We were a brilliant team. Though many are still at UCL some of the team are now lecturing in Manchester or are directing research centres in Taiwan. We ran large-scale experiments from Transport for Lonon and High Speed Rail 2. We ran detailed investigations of how people with sight loss navigate or wheelchair users tackle street environments. In many ways it was the best of times.
However, in 2012 a lectureship became available in Civil, Environmental & Geomatic Engineering, and I saw my chance to grow an area of research which I termed then Accessibility Engineering. This has morphed through the years and now I see it as a much broader area which encompasses human-city interaction. Since February of 2016 I have been a senior lecturer in UCL’s Interaction Centre. Sometimes I think if I had been asked what I really wanted to do when growing up in the nursing home I would have said Interaction Design, but I didn’t know what that was then! It is though a brilliant place to explore new technologies, how these are adopted and how people use technology in their everyday lives.
I am very lucky and also proud of our new centre which I co-founded – the GDI Hub (Global Disability Innovation Hub). We aim to make a positive difference to the lives of the 1 billion disabled people by 2030. We are doing this through collaboration, breaking down boundaries and generally disrupting thinking and practice around disability, inclusion and development. We held our first summit in July 2017, and you can read about it here if you have the time.
In my spare time I help to run summer schools at UCL to break down the boundaries to Science technology Engineering and Mathematics. I want people to have every opportunity to share the joy of using technology to create solutions to problems. My favourite week of the year is the UCL – James Dyson Foundation’s Wheelchair Hacking Summer School. I concocted the idea with my good friends Pete Smitham, Steve Hailes, Rae Habrid, and Elpida Makrygianni. The team has grown to include the fabulous Giulia Barbareschi, who did a brilliant job of running it this year.
I also run, slowly and can be found near the back of many an organised run.