Access technology projects get boost from multidisciplinary collaboration

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Associate Professor Stan Rickel helps oversee RIT’s access technology research.

Dan Phillips had a vision for creating products that would improve access for people with disabilities.

Phillips, head of RIT’s biomedical engineering program, working with colleague, Beth DeBartolo, director of the Kate Gleason College of Engineering multidisciplinary design program, envisioned embedding students where individuals and service providers interact. That way, they reasoned, they would better understand what was needed and apply that knowledge to their creations.

Over a number of years, a full-scale access technology design and development program that engages students and faculty in colleges across the university has emerged. It’s become such a focus that RIT now holds an annual conference to showcase research and development related to access technology and provide a forum for sharing ideas and solutions.

“One of the goals of RIT’s strategic plan is to build upon our rich history of developing new technologies to improve access and inclusion for people of all abilities,” said Ryne Raffaelle, RIT vice president for research and associate provost. “RIT faculty and student researchers are working with a number of local service providers to support the fine work that they do. It’s very gratifying to see how RIT is positively impacting people’s lives.”

Stan Rickel, associate professor and graduate director of RIT’s industrial design program, said the program benefits students as well as the clients.

“So many of our students are intrigued by access technology,” said Rickel. “We introduce them to the concepts and teach them how to take all of these moving parts and put them together. What fascinates me is when our students meet with the clients and come back with tears in their eyes. It really brings their excitement to life when they see how important their products will be to those who need them.”

The idea for Spynalign came from a Simone Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship IdeaLab project in which students met with representatives from Rochester Regional Health to learn about challenges faced by stroke patients. With marching orders in hand, the students created a device for stroke patient rehabilitation that works by placing a smartphone on a specially designed vest that alerts the patient wearing it to align and correct his or her posture. Enhancements to the device were made this summer as part of the Studio 9.30—RIT Design Consultancy, which offers students a multidisciplinary learning experience and the opportunity to work alongside consumers.

Greyson Watkins and his team of student developers created Hz Innovations, seeking to enhance life for deaf and hard-of-hearing homeowners with a cutting-edge wireless sound recognition system that will soon be marketed across the country. Sound-capturing units plugged into outlets throughout the home are tied into a single central processing unit in the home. When a doorbell rings, smoke alarm chimes or water faucet drips, the unit notifies the homeowner via smartphone, smart watch, tablet or laptop, and identifies the sound.

“I moved into a house and I started noticing all of the important things I was missing,” said Watkins, a fourth-year information security student from Durham, N.C. “I missed the sounds of my friends knocking on my front door; my washer and dryer are in the basement and I wouldn’t be able to hear the buzzing; my food would burn because I would leave the oven on. There are a lot of people out there, including senior citizens, who have similar issues. I just came up with the idea and it took off.”

Phillips credits the growth of access technology research at RIT to a collaborative spirit in which industrial designers, engineers and business people work together.

“RIT’s approach of recognizing and integrating design that is functional for engineers, industrial designers, business experts—and, of course, the amazing people who will ultimately be using our products— is the next step of the access technology evolution,” Phillips said. “The students, faculty and staff never cease to amaze me with respect to their ability and willingness to collaborate across disciplines and with our community partners to produce results that benefit society.”

RIT to host annual Effective Access Technology Conference

When: 7:30 a.m.–4 p.m. Nov. 10

Where: RIT Gordon Field House and Activities Center

What: The event showcases groundbreaking technology and offers a forum for sharing ideas and solutions. The day includes breakfast and lunch, speakers, exhibits, posters, awards, an e-NABLE workshop and an access technology plan competition.

Information: To learn more about the conference, go to

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For more about RIT’s access technology projects, go to