#DigiWomenKA: Kathrin Gerling

by Katharina Iyen

Female role models are important. They show possibilities, they help to define your own goals and we can learn from your experiences. In our blog series #DigiWomenKA, Katharina Iyen meets one such role model from the Karlsruhe digital sector once a month to find out more about them, their experiences and their commitment. Today she talks to Kathrin Gerling, Professor for Human-Computer Interaction and Accessibility at the Institute of Anthropomatics and Robotics (IAR) of the Faculty of Computer Science at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) and head of the Human-Computer Interaction and Accessibility Research Group .

I meet Kathrin Gerling in her new office at KIT. She is sitting at her laptop in an empty room. She smiles apologetically at me: “This is my first day today.” We walk into the kitchen together and make a yogi tea. The note on my bag says: “Let’s not just live with each other, but for each other”. This is surprisingly fitting, as Gerling’s research focuses on digital technologies and accessibility.
The aim of her research in the field of human-computer interaction (HCI) is to provide various target groups with access to interactive technology in the context of work, leisure and well-being. Gerling sums up what sounds so abstract: “Barriers have their origins in the nature of our environment. This also applies to digital technologies. Ideally, they need to be accessible to everyone – just like the rest of the world.”
However, in order to create this accessibility, there needs to be a much greater understanding of the connection between physical differences, technology and social participation and research into the use of technology to improve the quality of life of people with disabilities. To drive this research forward, Kathrin Gerling heads the Real-World Lab “Accessibility”, which focuses on the design, development and evaluation of new technologies and spatial configurations that can be used by people with disabilities to lead a self-determined life.

Coined of tolerance and cohesion

I want to understand how interest in the Promoting access opportunities and diversity at Gerling awakened and learns that she has traveled a lot. Born and raised is Kathrin Gerling south of Düsseldorf. “I had a very sheltered childhood and know that I am privileged. Other people have to be take completely different hurdles in their career than I did.” Gerling made a Bachelor’s degree in Media and Communication Studies and a Master’s degree in Media and Cognitive Science, both degrees she obtained at the University of Duisburg-Essen.
“I fell in love with Duisburg from the very first day of my studies,” she says smiling. “During our studies, we were people from everywhere and yet somehow we were all the same. There was great interaction and, of course, the Research areas very exciting. I liked this time very much, it was characterized of tolerance and cohesion.” The KIT professor sees her greatest challenge as in jumping over her shadow again and again. Gerling admits: “At first I wanted to go to Sweden to study for a Master’s degree, but didn’t dare. I I know that sounds absurd considering my CV, but I’m not really a Man for big changes, they unsettle me at first. But if the car then rolls, it goes on somehow.”
She completed her doctoral studies at the Department of Computer Science at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada: “I was sitting in an airplane over the Atlantic and just wondered what I was doing there. actually do. But in the end, it was the right thing to do,” she explains. Because while Gerling lived in Canada, she met her current husband. Moved together The family moved on to England, where their son was born. After five years, Brexit brought Gerling’s family to Belgium and last year finally returned to Germany.

After years abroad and several positions, Kathrin Gerling returned to Germany for a professorship at KIT. Photo: Kathrin Gerling
After years abroad and several positions, Kathrin Gerling returned to Germany for a professorship at KIT. Photo: Kathrin Gerling

Current Research and areas

Here in Karlsruhe, Gerling would like to new “Accessibility” real-world laboratory at KIT to further expand their research and also have an interdisciplinary approach. On the one hand, Gerling takes the The design potential of new technologies: “There is far too much designed on the basis of imaginary average people. We know this from the fashion, where a certain type is catered for – which in the end is the most people is not fair. In the same way, access to digital technologies be tailored differently.” It is therefore about breaking down prejudices and maximize accessibility to digital technologies for all. “One should think about things in the design phase, how to make them barrier-free. Participation of people with disabilities in Progress in IT must become the norm, because only then is it truly one.”

On the other hand, the potential in new technologies for the dismantling of already existing buildings. existing barriers. This is also where the interdisciplinary perspective. For example, through the collaboration with Professor Dr. Caroline Karmann, who has been working with the company since the Summer semester 2022 the professorship Architecture and Intelligent Living at the Institute of Design and Building Technology at KIT holds. Together, the researchers will explore the question of how barriers in the (built) environment can be reduced through new technologies. “Then it’s no longer just about the question of how digital technologies barrier-free design, but also how they can effectively contribute to the to reduce existing barriers in our everyday lives can.”

digiWomenKA_Kathrin Gerling with Caroline Karmann
#DigiWomenKA Kathrin Gerling with Reallabor tandem partner Caroline Karmann. Photo: Kathrin Gerling

Accessibility requires a change of perspective and a willingness to make structural changes

Gerling has one characteristic in her work: “I can observe very patiently in order to then try to find the to understand the situation of other people. Of course, this also helps when we conduct studies with users as part of our research.” This is important because not all barriers are immediately obvious. The fact that the virtual world also has barriers like a physical space, is actually only made clear to me by Gerling’s Explanations clearer “A simple example is a virtual reality controller, that you have to hold in both hands. But what if someone only has one hand has or can move?” By means of such research results, as obtained by Gerling’s research group could produce systems of barrier-free developed so that people with disabilities can also benefit from them. In the In the best case, this applies not only in the professional environment, but also to the For example, also during leisure time, explains Gerling.

For the creation of healthy and barrier-free environments, however, very far-reaching changes are needed. Changes that reached right into the structures of the institutions, reports Gerling. Because a lot of things only happen superficially. A good example research and development on digital technologies themselves.
“In the academic sector, for example, we are still only seeing a very small number of people with disabilities among the researchers,” explains Gerling the depth at which barriers work. This leads to the fact that these perspectives in science were lacking, and the discourse of non-disabled would be dominated by humans.

Stereotypes reduce, make role models visible and promote early enough

For academic research For this reason, Gerling also sees fewer barriers and more Equal opportunities: “I often ask myself how people with academic working conditions if they have no support in the background. Short employment contracts and numerous changes of residence make it difficult. You have to can afford to work like this. This barrier is also a problem. You This means that essentially only those people can continue who are privileged enough to keep it up. As a result, the research landscape itself is not very diverse. They all have similar life paths. We but we need real diversity in our teams.”

Gerling’s attitude to social inequality and participation impresses me. And even if diversity does not stop at the gender issue I would like to know from her what reasons she gives for the underrepresentation of the of women in IT. “We still lack role models. And that is not only when we make our own career decisions, but already much in the past – children’s books, toy shelves, many things are still very much traditionally presented and marketed. And I have in the past I often sat at tables where I was the only woman in the group. In addition, that I, the one who is white and comes from an academic household, am then the example of diversity? That’s not enough!”

We can certainly find such a role model in Kathrin Gerling, because she too has overcome barriers and learned. “I grow with my tasks. I also had to learn to focus and accept that I can’t live up to all expectations, whether in my professional or private life.” She learned to prioritize on her career path: “I had to understand that I not only have the freedom to do things, but also to not do them. That was an important learning process for me. To use the word ‘no’.”