Adira Blumenthal’s mission is to create assistive technologies

February 5, 2023

Adira Blumenthal

Adira Blumenthal, a computer science major and Take Five scholar has also been involved every semester with ROC Players, a student run club that puts on a full-length musical each semester for the University community.  “I’ve really enjoyed helping productions come to life, either through management or design.”

First-hand experience with a disability and a knack for computer science fuel her passion

Growing up in Silver Spring, MD., Adira Blumenthal ’23 (T5) pursued her passion for art, dancing, and choreography.

“That was a lot of my life throughout high school,” says the computer science major and Take 5 scholar at the University of Rochester.

However, Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School also required Blumenthal to have at least one tech credit. “They had a new computer science class, so I decided to take it. I really thought I was going to hate it,” she says.

Just the opposite occurred. “My teacher for that first class was a woman who had been an art teacher in the past,” Blumenthal says. “She really emphasized the creative aspects of coding and the creative process, and that really spoke to me.”

She took two more computer science classes in high school and found she really liked the subject. “What I find fascinating is how we can type some code and fundamentally change people’s lives for the better,” Blumenthal says.

She knows firsthand how important that can be. Blumenthal has migraines and a processing speed disorder. “Basically, I don’t read with my eyes anymore,” she explains. “Since middle school I’ve been using text to speech to read essentially everything.”

Learning to lead an independent life with her disability—no longer relying on someone to accompany her to a museum to read the descriptions of paintings, for example— has been a long and sometimes difficult process.

Recently, however, iPhone updates provide cameras that expanded the range of things she can read on her own, from descriptions in a museum to the directions on medicine bottles, Blumenthal says. As part of understanding her place in the broader disability community, she has immersed herself in learning more about other assistive technologies for a range of disabilities.

All of these experiences have given Blumenthal a new passion to pursue, using computer science and other technologies to create assistive technologies for others.

“It felt like a really good path to go down.”

Rochester’s flexible curriculum leaves room to pursue multiple interests

The next step along that path was enrolling at the University of Rochester. “I really liked the flexible curriculum,” Blumenthal says, “because I was interested in doing lots of different things.” In addition to pursuing a major in computer science, “I wanted to learn about the brain, and continue my interest in the arts, and be able to learn sign language. I knew that the curriculum structure would support that.”

For example, she’s been involved every semester with ROC Players, an entirely student run club that puts on a full-length musical each semester for the University community. “I’ve been a lighting designer, set designer, and stage manager,” Blumenthal says. She also served on the executive board for two semesters as production manager. “I’ve really enjoyed helping productions come to life, either through management or design.”

She also chose the University because of the ROC-HCI (Rochester Human-Computer Interaction) lab, co-led by Ehsan Hoque and Zhen Bai, which includes research on assistive technologies.

She met Hoque during an initial visit to the University. Then, at the height of COVID when the University switched to remote learning, Blumenthal began listening in on the lab’s virtual group meetings. “Over time, I would start speaking up in the meetings, and asking questions,” she says. Blumenthal then volunteered to participate in a project using Google search data to compare YouTube usage before and during the pandemic.

Later one of the lab’s grad students, aware of her interest in assistive technology and accessibility, asked her to join a project associated with one of the lab’s major areas of focus: using videos to detect signs of Parkinson’s disease. Blumenthal interviewed 177 people with Parkinson’s, asking if they would approve of the use of filters to automatically remove the tremors from their body or voice during videoconferencing, and whether this would raise ethical concerns.

Blumenthal says it was “very exciting” to be involved in a project from its initiation to publication of a paper.

The opportunity to talk directly to people with Parkinson’s about their concerns and involve them in the development process was “meaningful and impactful, and something that will be really important going forward,” Blumenthal says.

The experience was valuable in another way: “Every time you work in a team, you learn more about team dynamics, and how to bring up concerns without being disrespectful, and how to say no diplomatically,” Blumenthal says.

The paper she co-authored received a Best Paper nomination at the 10th International Conference on Affective Computing and Intelligent Interaction. Blumenthal also received an honorable mention in the Computing Research Association’s (CRA) Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher Award program for 2023.

This semester, she is doing research at RIT's National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) in the XR-ASL Lab. “I am immersed in ASL and get to apply my knowledge and passion for accessible design and technology,” Blumenthal says. She is working on a prototype of a Deaf-friendly medicine information and tracking app that allows users to access information through ASL videos instead of relying solely on written English text. 

‘I just want to help people with disabilities’

Last summer, she also began exploring possible career opportunities in assistive technologies.  She interned at the Assistive Technology Clinic at HSC Pediatric Center in Washington, DC, learning about alternative and augmented communication (AAC), a variety of computer access methods, and the technological strengths and limitations of the AAC devices currently available.

“I was also exposed to the systemic issues that patients, families, and providers face when trying to access care that limits the effectiveness of the technology - such as lack of AAC training for schools and speech and language pathologists, complications with insurance, and difficulties with transportation —just to name a few,” she says.

She’s looking forward to another internship this summer with GoodMaps, a company based in Louisville, that makes accessible navigation apps for both indoors and outdoors, specifically for blind people and people with low vision.

This fall, she will be back on campus, finishing her degree and taking advantage of the University’s unique Take 5 program to spend an additional year, tuition free, studying American Sign Language and Accessibility.

After that she plans to look for a job as a software engineer in a company that produces assistive technology.

“There are two routes I can take,” she says. “Companies that specifically do assistive technology, or bigger companies, such as Microsoft and Google, that have dedicated accessibility and assistive technology departments to ensure that their general products are accessible and usable.”

“I’m open to both.”

Wherever she lands, “I just want to work on lots of different technologies that help people with disabilities live with an improved quality of life,” Blumenthal says. “That’s my main goal.”