Assistive technology: Enabling those experiencing disability

Professor of Practice Brad Duerstock shares how he works to make STEM education and work accessible.


Approximately 20 percent of the U.S. population has some type of disability — comprising the largest minority in the nation, spanning all races and ethnicities, socioeconomic groups, and genders. This has an obvious personal impact, along with an economic one, as disability prevents many working-age individuals from participating in the workforce. Yet each of these individuals can contribute to society if given the right tools, training and opportunities. That’s where assistive technology, or AT, comes in.

AT encompasses a broad spectrum of technologies that help people with all kinds of disabilities, as well as the aging population, be more effective in performing activities. These devices can be anything from a modified eating utensil to a Paralympic wheelchair. They may be high-tech or low-tech, hardware or software, designed to aid someone with typical activities of daily living (ADL), or specialized technology for rehabilitative, educational or leisure activities.

There are many types of disabilities, including mobility, sensory, learning, intellectual and psychological impairments. Each offers unique challenges to how an individual can interact with technology. For example, motor disabilities essentially are output interface problems, impeding people from easily interacting with their environment. Sensory impairments create input interface barriers to how individuals receive information from others and their environment. Cognitive disabilities challenge one’s perception, processing or recollection of information.

My research interest focuses on improving the independence, productivity and well-being of persons with disabilities using a wide variety of emerging technologies. We have been actively investigating accessibility challenges related to ADL, transportation, workplace and education accommodation, and healthcare.

Our research team has been working to enable students with disabilities to actively participate in STEM higher education learning. In 2010 we established the Institute for Accessible Science (IAS), funded through an NIH (National Institutes of Health) Director’s Pathfinder Award, to promote greater inclusion of people with physical disabilities in STEM careers. Postsecondary students with disabilities often do not progress to careers in STEM because of difficulty performing practical, “hands-on” science and engineering learning activities. Likewise, STEM instructors often are not properly equipped to teach students with disabilities. Medical and postgraduate STEM education, in particular, usually requires students to independently conduct research using sophisticated laboratory instruments and techniques. Along with the typical struggles that these students must face, having to figure out how to overcome a lack of accessibility at their lab or institution is daunting for those with disabilities. 

STEM AT and other resources are needed for students with disabilities to achieve a career in STEM and be active contributors to science and engineering fields.

Unfortunately, too often, innovative AT does not get into the hands of individuals with disabilities who would benefit from its use, for a number of reasons. Many novel AT devices reach the proof-of-concept stage but lack necessary rigorous testing to become reliable tools. There are significant hurdles to commercialization due to the relatively small market size, which does not attract a lot of investors. Customizing AT devices for individuals is an iterative development process that takes time and money. To counter this trend, Professor Robert Hannemann of Purdue’s Davidson School of Chemical Engineering has spearheaded the Center for Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology (CREATe) to rapidly make innovative and robust AT available to the public.

We also are investigating how to personalize AT through novel methods of testing and fabricating. Right now, persons with disabilities face choosing AT equipment that they cannot be sure will benefit them in the long term. As a result, a lot of AT devices, while prescribed based on sound clinical decisions, end up sitting in closets because they turn out not to be what the person wants or can use.

Our team is exploring extended reality (XR) technologies to expand our capacity to assess how individuals actually use AT in their daily lives. The goals are to improve usability, individual task performance, and retention. New fabrication and manufacturing strategies, such as rapid prototyping and mass customization, also are needed to create customizable and affordable AT.

Integrating emerging technologies into novel AT 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 AT for persons with disabilities, just as the personal computer did in the 1980s.

We are employing artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to make AT smarter. How an individual performs a particular task can require different feedbacks or methods of control based on situational or environmental changes. AI and ML can detect these differences and make educated choices to boost accuracy. Being able to continually learn users’ intended actions can help technologies better anticipate their behaviors, and offer real-time intelligent assistance or prevent unsafe actions.

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

Rehabilitation engineering, which includes AT development, is inherently multidisciplinary. AT requires the collaboration of clinicians (such as medical doctors; nurses; and occupational, speech and physical therapists), as well as industry partners and engineers, scientists and technologists from various academic disciplines.

AT advancement depends on such teamwork — starting with concerted efforts in recruiting persons with disabilities to engage actively in the user-centered design process, and pooling expertise and resources to ensure that optimally usable AT devices reach those who need them.

Brad Duerstock, PhD

Professor of Practice, Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering and School of Industrial Engineering, and Member, Purdue Engineering Initiative in Engineering-Medicine
Professor, Dept. of Basic Medical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine (by courtesy)
Professor, Dept. of Health and Kinesiology, College of Health and Human Sciences (by courtesy)
Purdue University


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