Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1 hour / session

Labs: 2 sessions / week, 2 hours / session


There are no formal prerequisites for the course. We seek students from a wide range of backgrounds and disciplines. Teams of three to four students will complement each other’s skill sets. Many of the students are in Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, and Computer Science, but students from all majors are welcome. This course is a good fit for students interested in public service, user-centered product design, working closely with a client with a disability (potentially in consultation with their caregivers and / or clinicians), and tackling difficult, real-world problems.


6.811: Principles and Practice of Assistive Technology (PPAT) is an interdisciplinary, project-based course, centered around a design project in which small teams of students work closely with a person with a disability in the Cambridge area to design a device, piece of equipment, app, or other solution that helps them live more independently.

Over the course of the term, each team meets with its “client,” iterates through multiple prototypes, and learns about the challenges and realities of designing technologies for people with disabilities.

Along with the project, the course includes guest lectures from clinicians in rehabilitation, human-computer interface experts, product designers, and people living with physical or cognitive impairments, with topics such as principles of successful assistive technology design; perspectives from people with disabilities, AT makers, and users; design processes; human factors; and social, economic, and ethical perspectives on disability.

Lab exercises will be featured in which students use and evaluate various assistive technologies.

Course Goals

  1. Understand principles and complexities of assistive technology design and engineering.
  2. Learn about the challenges and realities of people with disabilities and become equipped as an advocate.
  3. Gain experience managing a team-based design / engineering project and working with a real client.

Course Components

Lectures and Labs: These involve hands-on activities, discussions, and occasional guest speakers with experience in disability and assistive technology. Some of the lab periods will provide time for teams to discuss and work on their projects with technical mentors. Attendance and active participation in all in-class activities are required.

Client project: This is a central part of the course. Descriptions of potential projects and clients will be presented in the second week of class, and matches will be announced in the third week. Teams will meet weekly with their client to understand their needs, define a problem that can be solved with assistive technology, develop evaluation metrics, and test multiple iterations of prototypes. The client meetings, design work, and documentation represent the majority of work required outside of class. Deliverables for the project include a written contextual inquiry report, a video documenting the client’s challenge or the design process, midterm and final presentations, and blog reflections.

Reflections: Each student will write a few individual blog-style reflections. We expect that you will think critically about the material and activities in PPAT, write about disability from your own perspective, attend other events and happenings around Cambridge and Boston related to disability, or learn more your client’s life experiences. We will share many of these posts on the PPAT class blog. Some posts may be private, but we encourage you to make the majority of posts public so that the world can learn about your work in the course.


Some examples of past projects have included:

  • Customized seat cushion for wheelchair users.
  • iPhone app for detecting clothing colors and patterns to help a blind person dress independently.
  • Binoculars for birdwatching, that are accessible without the use of hands.
  • Bicycle with sensing and a haptic interface designed for a blind rider.
  • Android-based task-reminder and sequencing system for a person with a brain injury causing deficits in working memory.
  • Blind-accessible modification to an otherwise inaccessible espresso machine.
  • Customized mouse event handler for someone using only his eyes to control the mouse.
  • Voice-controlled tablet-based software to control various aspects of the user’s environment.
  • Custom “no-spill” spoon for a person with a spinal cord injury to eat more easily.


4 Blog Posts 10%
Video documenting either client challenge or design process 10%
Mid-semester presentations 10%
Final-semester presentations 10%
Online, open-source documentation & press release (+ high quality photos) 20%
Attendance, discussion participation, lab check-ins (i.e. mentor feedback) 20%
Client and peer feedback 20%

Lecture and Lab Expectations

This year, we aim to have lively discussions, debates, and other activities about disability and assistive technology in lecture and lab sessions. We expect full attendance at all sessions (unless you have an excused absence). When guest speakers are presenting, please do not use laptops, tablets, or phones. Most importantly, PPAT requires your presence and active participation in lectures and labs—we are truly interested in your ideas, thoughts, and reflections throughout the semester.

Textbook (Optional)

Cook, Albert M., and Jan Miller Polgar. Cook & Hussey’s Assistive Technologies: Principles and Practice. 3rd ed. Mosby Elsevier, 2007. ISBN: 9780323039079. [Preview with Google Books]

Course Info

Learning Resource Types

notes Lecture Notes
group_work Projects with Examples
groups Course Introduction
theaters Demonstration Videos
assignment_turned_in Activity Assignments with Examples
assignment_turned_in Media Assignments with Examples
assignment Written Assignments
co_present Instructor Insights