College of Education; College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences; Community, Engagement, Belonging and Access; Research

Study finds smartphone app may be the best job aid for people with intellectual disabilities


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CLEMSON, South Carolina — A study of the effectiveness of a Clemson-developed smartphone app for people with intellectual disabilities has yielded impressive results. The app, Task Analysis Lite, assists users in the completion of everyday tasks for home and work. Clemson’s study of the app found large gains in the performance of task completion once the app was incorporated.

The app was developed through an interdisciplinary partnership between Clemson’s School of Computing and ClemsonLIFE (Learning is for Everyone), a program that provides postsecondary education for students with intellectual disabilities. Joe Ryan, founder and executive director of ClemsonLIFE, said the results of the study are encouraging for young people and adults with disabilities who seek to live and work independently.

“The sharp increase in performance coupled with the students’ desire to continue using the app is very promising,” Ryan said. “Since the study has ended, our students have continued using it over summer break and the fall semester in new and creative ways, which is very exciting to see.”

Ryan led the research team comprised of both undergraduate and graduate students alongside Roy Pargas, associate professor emeritus in the school of computing. The team oversaw development and testing of the app.

Ryan said the study demonstrated a “floor-to-ceiling” improvement in users’ ability to complete work-related tasks thanks to the app. All of the students in the study had an intellectual disability (IQ between 40 and 54), and were observed operating common office technology, including a shredder, scanner and copier. The team measured performance by the number of steps individuals successfully completed both with and without the use of the app.

Findings showed there was little to no improvement among participants across six or more initial attempts without the app, but performance levels increased dramatically once the app was introduced, with students quickly mastering each of the skills. According to Ryan, this consistent performance increase across participants provides strong evidence of its effectiveness.

ClemsonLIFE app
Zacharey Buchanan, now an alum of the ClemsonLIFE program, uses a smartphone app developed through a collaboration between Clemson’s College of Education and College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences’ School of Computing.

“Students who could complete only 10 percent of steps successfully without the app during baseline were immediately performing 100 percent of steps independently once it was introduced,” Ryan said. “That magnitude of change is striking.”

Kristina Randall, a doctoral student in special education who worked on developing the app, described it as a potential game-changer. The app can be used in both home and work settings, and it allows people to be less dependent upon caregivers or job coaches. The steps of any task can be modified to include as many steps as needed to accommodate the needs of the individual.

The app has made a major difference for students like Frankie Antonelli, a current student in the ClemsonLIFE program who has incorporated the app into both his academic and personal life. Antonelli’s mother, Deb, first encountered the app in spring 2017 when she visited her son in Clemson. She watched as he used the app to scan documents in an office setting.

“I saw him immediately take to the app and follow the steps really well,” she said. “Creativity kicked in for me; I started to think about all the different applications for this technology and how it could benefit him.”

When Frankie came home for the summer after his first year in the program, Deb added multiple tasks to the app. Mother and son took pictures of the ingredients and steps involved in making French toast, and now he can consistently make this breakfast all by himself.

Frankie even uses the app when he works out. While Frankie loves spending time in the gym, he has always been dependent upon a trainer to keep him on track with reps and weights for various exercises.

Deb worked with Frankie to add all of his workouts in sequence to the app so that he could go to the gym on his own. Now he no longer needs to rely on a trainer to help him perform exercises correctly, and the app is also making a career goal of Frankie’s seem not so far out of reach.

“He says he wants to be a personal trainer, and because of this app I could see that being a potential job option for him,” Deb said. “He can use it to actually teach a class, so the next step is giving him the opportunity to use it in that way.”

The app does require parent or guardian support, at least initially, to input information regarding specific tasks, such as cooking and cleaning, since operating specific machines or appliances can differ across multiple brands and models. A parent, guardian or employer can load audio, video and photos for each step of a task, with all the information saved directly to the individual’s smartphone.

The app also supports “geo-fencing,” which allows it to pinpoint the student’s location. This limits the type and number of tasks the user will see based on their location. When the student is at work, home-related tasks are hidden from view and vice versa, thus preventing the app’s screen from becoming cluttered and confusing.

Ryan said the ClemsonLIFE program will increasingly incorporate the app into the curriculum to find where it is most beneficial for students. Doctoral students working in the program will continue to conduct single case research studies over the 2018-2019 academic year and Ryan hopes to measure the app’s effectiveness for students with intellectual disabilities in K-12 settings.

“We’ve seen the benefit these apps have had in our students; it’s undeniable,” Ryan said, “but those benefits shouldn’t be relegated to this program, region or state. We’ve already gotten great feedback from users across the U.S., and we want that trend to continue.”

The apps were developed through a collaboration between the College of Education’s ClemsonLIFE program and the Clemson’s College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences’ School of Computing. The app is available through the Apple iTunes store by searching TaskAnalysisLite. For now, the app is free while designers continue to pursue improvements and enhance usability.

ClemsonLIFE supports the concept that enhancing academic, social, employment and life skills will better prepare students with disabilities to lead full and productive lives. It is a comprehensive post-secondary education program designed to help young adults with intellectual disabilities gain employment and live independently.

The program started in 2009 and has grown from a handful of students to its current enrollment of 40 students. The program is supported by seven full-time staff, five graduate assistants and eight undergraduate students who work for the program.

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