Student-made app aims to improve the lives of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities

Tackling any task can often be made easier by focusing on one step at a time.

Brock student researchers have used this logic to develop an app meant to improve quality of living for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDDs).

StepByStep Tasks was launched by Computer Science students Javon Luke and Tianyuan Zhang, under the guidance of Senior Lab Demonstrator and Co-ordinator Poling Bork. The app, through which Luke and Zhang have been working with staff and clients of Community Living Haldimand, is part of a study aimed at increasing the community participation and independence of people living with IDDs.

The project is a collaborative effort that began with Bork consulting with Associate Professor Kimberly Maich in the Faculty of Education at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Bork then connected Luke and Zhang with PhD student Courtney Bishop and Associate Professor Tricia Vause, both in Brock’s Department of Child and Youth Studies, Assistant Professor Priscilla Burnham-Riosa, in the Department of Applied Disability Studies, and stakeholders from Community Living Haldimand.

An under-represented community, individuals with IDDs account for one to two per cent of the population. Many people with IDDs not only struggle with a wide range of limitations, including difficulties with perceptual reasoning and verbal comprehension, but are also at a higher risk for social exclusion than their non-disabled peers.

The StepByStep Tasks app provides a variety of prompting options on how to complete a task. Prompts provide visual and/or audio assistance to help users understand each step and can be modified to meet the individual needs of the user.

These individuals often rely on assistance from support workers to complete everyday tasks and errands. By introducing the app, the team hopes to make significant contributions to improving the quality of life for many.

Just as its name suggests, the StepByStep Tasks app instructs users on how to complete a task, one step at a time.

Instructions can be presented through a variety of audio and visual prompts, with options ranging from instructional videos (most prompting) all the way to simple text instructions (least prompting). The amount of prompting, however, is completely up to the user and their specific needs.

Customizability allows for users to modify the format in which they receive each instruction. For example, if someone was interested in learning how to do laundry, they could start off with a video accompanied by audio or text that explains how to complete each step from start to finish. As the user gains confidence in their abilities, they can begin fading out the amount of assistance they receive at each step. They can go from requiring a video or picture to completing that step independently.

The hope is that users can eventually learn to complete the entire task with little to no prompting.

Before introducing the app to users, the research team had to first teach Community Living support staff how it works. Through a behavioural skills training program, staff are taught how to properly use the app, set up tasks and fade their support using principles of applied behaviour analysis.

They then work with the individual to identify skills to focus on and compile a list of tasks. Once the tasks and steps have been uploaded, staff provide a demonstration and explanation of the app to the individual. Staff participants then use most-to-least prompting to fade their own supports.

“It’s working really well,” Bishop said when asked about the results the team has received. “When we first started, people were needing anywhere from 60 to 100 per cent support from their staff and we’re now seeing many of those drop down to zero.”

Over the course of the year, the research team will grow the app’s user base by introducing more participants into the study. Currently, 12 people are actively using the technology. That number will nearly triple to a total of 35 by the end of the project’s second phase in April 2020.

Unparalleled in its ability to fade levels of prompting, members of the developmental services field are growing increasingly interested in the app and how it can be implemented into their work.

With such an opportunity to grow, StepByStep Tasks is now available for free in the Apple App Store.

“None of this would be possible without the help we received from the Department of Computer Science and Poling Bork,” Luke said. “She came up with the idea for the app and played a vital role in this project by connecting Tianyuan and I with Courtney and Community Living Haldimand.”

Bork also met regularly with the students and representatives from Community Living to ensure the initiative was on track.

“It brings me great pride to see students from our Faculty making a difference in the community,” said Ejaz Ahmed, Dean of the Faculty of Mathematics and Science. “I applaud their efforts and would like to thank Poling Bork for guiding them through this endeavour.”

Bork specializes in serious games — video games that are designed for more than pure entertainment, with intended purposes such as intervention or education. She has guided more than 30 Computer Science undergraduate students in the development of innovative therapeutic video games.

“She continues to be very active in getting our students involved as participants in real-world programming applications,” said Brian Ross, Chair of Brock’s Department of Computer Science. “Her doctoral expertise in education means she has many network connections with faculty and community partners who are in need of applications like StepByStep Tasks. Not only do the ends users benefit, but also our Computer Science students gain invaluable experience in app development.”

Later this month, Luke and Zhang will further promote their work as they attend Connect 2019, Canada’s largest educational technology conference. The pair will provide demonstrations and discuss the process they took to develop the app with fellow conference delegates.

“This was my first time developing an IOS app,” Zhang said. “I learned a lot from my role in this project and am very excited to speak to people about our experiences.”

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