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Accessibility in Making at BeAM

Throughout his daily life, Jeff Olander (PhD physics ’20) has found creative ways to make his world more accessible. Olander relies on a power wheelchair for mobility due to a neuromuscular disease.

After arriving at Carolina as a graduate student, Olander discovered the tools and community offered by BeAM@CAROLINA MakerSpaces. He created adaptive devices that can be used within and beyond the MakerSpaces, and also to improve accessibility to BeAM’s resources and tools. Now, he wants to leverage his knowledge to launch an accessibility program for other people with disabilities.

Olander started by using digital fabrication tools like 3D printers in the MakerSpaces to create custom accessibility devices – including a replacement thumb rest for his wheelchair joystick. He then joined BeAM as a Program Assistant and later an Assistant Technical Supervisor to continue to expand his technical knowledge and share this knowledge with others.

Olander’s experiences at BeAM inspired him to create Accessibility in Making (AiM), a collaborative community of disabled Makers working together to solve accessibility problems. “Initially, I shared some ideas for improving the wheelchair accessibility of the BeAM MakerSpaces with the BeAM technical staff,” Olander shares.

Olander worked with BeAM staff and future AiM co-runner Aurorah Arndt to create an advisory group for accessibility in the MakerSpaces. As they focused on the vision for the group, the mission of AiM was conceptualized: MakerSpaces need to accommodate people with disabilities, and they also need to support Makers’ ability to tailor adaptations to their world.

“BeAM is currently AiM’s home, and our connection runs very deep,” he says. “BeAM’s motto is ‘Imagine. Create. Solve. Build.’ That is what we are trying to do with accessibility: identify a challenge, and then imagine and create a solution.”

Accessibility in Making

Olander praises not only the tools and technology offered at BeAM, but the sense of community. “We are surrounded by kind, spirited innovators at BeAM who nurture a feeling of inclusivity and support,” he says. “Facing one’s disability can often feel like an unseen solo endeavor. BeAM gives our Makers a place to feel seen and be heard.”

AiM builds on this supportive environment by sharing experiences of other disabled Makers who have solved accessibility problems. “We support each other to find, modify, or build assistive devices to address a need in our own lives.” he adds. “We aim to build not only the solution, but a cooperative, creative, and curious community of disabled Makers. There is no better place to do this than a MakerSpace.”

The future of AiM is bright as Olander hopes to expand MakerSpace access and trainings to people with disabilities. “Through AiM, we want to help disabled folks access equipment and work with them as they create their own assistive devices,” he explains. “We hope that many, in turn, will funnel that experience back into the community to help the next generation of Makers.”

“At its core, AiM is a group of inspired, curious people with disabilities who want to help themselves and each other,” concludes Olander, who now serves a Software Accessibility Tester at Fable where he works with tech companies to evaluate the accessibility of apps and websites for people with a mobility disability.

“Fortunately, there are now MakerSpaces available on campuses and in communities all over the world. In time, I see the AiM initiative similarly spreading far beyond Carolina.”

For more information about AiM, contact Jeff Olander via email.

Olander pictured with Arndt, and her service dog Hunter