Assistive Technology: Enabling People with Disabilities | by Purdue College of Engineering | Sep 2021

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Unfortunately, too often, innovative ATs fail to reach people with disabilities who would benefit from its use, for a number of reasons. Many new AT devices are reaching the proof of concept stage, but lack the rigorous testing necessary to become reliable tools. There are significant barriers to commercialization due to the relatively small size of the market, which does not attract many investors. Customizing AT home devices is an iterative development process that takes time and money. To counter this trend, Professor Robert Hannemann of the Davidson School of Chemical Engineering at Purdue led the Center for Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology (CREATe) to quickly bring innovative and robust assistive technology to the public.

We are also investigating how to customize TA through new testing and manufacturing methods. Today, people with disabilities are faced with AT equipment choices that they cannot be sure will be of benefit to them in the long term. As a result, many AT devices, although prescribed on the basis of sound clinical decisions, end up sitting in the closet because they turn out not to be what the person wants or can use.

Our team is exploring Extended Reality (XR) technologies to extend our ability to assess how people actually use AT in their daily lives. The goals are to improve usability, performance of individual tasks and retention. New manufacturing and manufacturing strategies, such as rapid prototyping and mass customization, are also needed to create customizable and affordable TAs.

The integration of emerging technologies into new information technologies is a very exciting development. We have been testing haptics, gesture recognition, collaborative robotics, and wearable and mobile computing technologies for some time. These technologies have the potential to transform TA for people with disabilities, much like the personal computer did in the 1980s.

We use artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to make TA smarter. The way an individual performs a particular task may require different feedbacks or methods of control depending on situational or environmental changes. AI and ML can detect these differences and make informed choices to improve accuracy. Being able to constantly learn the actions planned by users can help technologies to better anticipate their behaviors and offer intelligent assistance in real time or prevent dangerous actions.

My colleagues at Purdue and I have issued and filed patents in the field of TA. One device, called RoboDesk, is a motorized desk attached to a wheelchair that allows a person with little or no upper limb mobility to automatically deploy and retract a platform containing an iPad or lightweight laptop. We are also creating a multisensory image perception device that allows blind people to use multiple feedbacks, including haptics, sound and vibration, to recognize different characteristics of digital images in real time.

Rehabilitation engineering, which includes TA development, is inherently multidisciplinary. TA requires the collaboration of clinicians (such as physicians, nurses and occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists and physiotherapists), as well as industrial partners and engineers, scientists and technologists from various academic disciplines.

The advancement of TA depends on this teamwork, starting with a concerted effort to recruit people with disabilities to actively engage in the user-centered design process, and to share knowledge. ‘expertise and resources to ensure that best-used AT devices get to those who need them.

Brad Duerstock, PhD

Professor of Practice, Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering and School of Industrial Engineering, and Member, Purdue Engineering-Medicine Initiative

Professor, Department of Basic Medical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine (courtesy)
Professor, Department of Health and Kinesiology, College of Health and Human Sciences (courtesy)
Purdue University


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