Research Highlights / Full Story

Technology Provides Leverage

Societal participation can be especially difficult for those among us who are confronted by multiple disabilities (deafness and cognitive challenges, blindness and mobility issues, etc.). Unfortunately, these instances of multiple challenges are increasingly frequent among our growing elderly and veteran populations. Over the past five years, we have seen a 39-percent increase in the total number of veterans living with service-related disabilities and a dramatic 100-percent increase in veterans with a 70 to 100 percent disability rating.

The good news is that this is the best time imaginable for people with disabilities and/or special needs to take advantage of new technology for connection and independence. Researchers at Rochester Institute of Technology are developing a significant number of new types of technologies or have adapted existing technologies to improve access for persons with disabilities. From advanced robotics to new technologies for hearing or visual impairment to the use of social and interactive media, researchers are developing remarkable new ways for people to connect.

RIT values its tradition of developing assistive and adaptive technology and working with our community to serve those with disabilities and special needs. One of the best examples is RIT's National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID). Formally established in 1965 through an Act of Congress, NTID began operation in 1967 and is currently one of the most accessible education communities in the world for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. NTID's long and rich history of innovations for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community is unparalleled. The NTID-created speech-to-text system is used all over the world to provide communication access to individuals who are deaf. This tradition continues with RIT/NTID's recent award of a $1.75 million grant from the William G. McGowan Charitable Fund as the lead investment in the construction of the new Sebastian and Lenore Rosica Hall. This first-of-its-kind facility will engage deaf and hard-of-hearing students and their hearing peers, along with faculty and corporate partners, in the innovation process.

RIT is proud of our longstanding commitment to supporting our wounded service members. For over 50 years, RIT's Veteran Services Office has been dedicated to supporting and advocating for active-duty military, veterans, and their dependents. RIT is proud to partner with the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs in the "Yellow Ribbon" program and "Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges Consortium" initiatives, which offer educational support to veterans, servicemembers, and their families. NTID has developed a program designed especially for veterans who have suffered hearing loss as a result of their service.

RIT's work in assistive and adaptive technology has been done in collaboration with many local institutions, including the Al Sigl Community of Agencies, Arc of Monroe County, Association of the Blind and Visually Impaired (ABVI), Nazareth College Physical Therapy Clinics, and the Veterans Administration. These partnerships have identified the new technologies—or adaptations of existing technical resources—that can foster independent choices for and direct connections to those living with multiple disabilities and/or other special needs. Last year alone, RIT, with its partners, executed on some 71 different research projects relating to access technology. This important work is being conducted all across campus, in eight different colleges, with a cumulative total of over $10M in support from funders including the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, along with many other private, state, and federal organizations.

Computational Support

Innovative uses of interactive media (i.e., social networking, virtual reality, cyber technology, human visualization, and gaming tools) have resulted in new interventions for the treatment of developmental disabilities. Elsewhere in this issue, you'll read about RIT's Laurence Sugarman developing computer games to be used in tandem with existing biofeedback technologies that help individuals develop skills to manage a variety of mental, emotional, and behavioral challenges. Indeed, RIT's Career Opportunities for Students with Disabilities Community of Practice, dedicated to meeting our diverse student population's full range of needs, was awarded the 2012 Robert Greenberg Award for Innovation for providing cutting-edge services to enable college students with disabilities to be more competitive in their job searches.

In RIT's College of Health Sciences and Technology, professor Caroline Easton and her colleagues are developing and building standardized, virtual-reality role- play tools for use with clients struggling with co-occurring substance abuse and domestic violence issues. Clients are encouraged to interact with virtual characters and are paired up with avatar coaches who help teach, reinforce, and promote coping skills. These virtual tools help shape healthier communication skills, develop pro-social behaviors, and improve both the client's health and overall well-being of the family. Clients engage, through games, in role-playing exercises that allow them to learn healthier coping skills and manage their substance abuse, anger management, communication skills, and conflict resolution.

Capstone Projects to Address Disabilities

RIT faculty and students have long been engaged in the development of assistive and adaptive technologies for persons with physical disabilities. Since 2006, faculty and student innovators have completed over 50 capstone engineering design projects aimed at helping people with disabilities. RIT-developed assistive devices, workplace adaptations, and rehabilitation aids have impacted individuals and organizations in the greater Rochester area. One student project involved the refashioning of an RIT-developed upper extremity exerciser for stroke rehabilitation into a low-cost gait and terrain monitor prototype. Other projects resulted in improved pool lift seats, redesigned wheelchair trays, and modified keyboards for Arc of Monroe County. RIT researchers implemented a work cell redesign for the Association of the Blind and Visually Impaired (ABVI) and redesigned a Closure Tube Assembly for ArcWorks. Collaboration with the Nazareth College Physical Therapy Clinics has led to the development of several new pieces of equipment for the clinics along with improvements to the campus facility.

RIT embraces its role as a leader in educating diverse people of all needs and abilities of our community. This commitment calls RIT to work to ensure access for all, in all spheres of activity and influence. The university is unique in its great range of community partnerships, groundbreaking techno- logical capabilities, and an unfailing belief in the need to provide the innovative solutions that will make full access for the community a goal that can be realized.