In June, the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA) held their annual conference in Minneapolis. The members of RESNA work to “improve the potential of people with disabilities to achieve their goals through the use of technology.” They serve that purpose by promoting research, development, education, advocacy, and the provision of technology and by supporting the people engaged in these activities. RESNA’s membership ranges from rehabilitation professionals to consumers.
A conference highlight was an exhibit of assistive technology ranging from high-tech wheelchairs to vision aids. During the five-day run, I attended many informative sessions. Here, by category, are some of the more impressive things I saw.
A research project is attempting to improve communication for people with dysarthric speech patterns. This new method of speaking combines natural speech with the use of augmentative communication devices. The individual’s voice is optimized by changing the tone, pitch, and duration of sounds. The person initiates speech by using the communication aid (a device such as Dynavox) in the standard fashion, and then speaks the rest of the phrase which is converted via software. The goal is a more natural flow of speech which allows the user to participate more fully in conversation.
Direct Brain Interface or Computer-Based Interface
This is currently being explored for people who have had brain surgery due to epilepsy. An electrode is placed on the brain during surgery and the person is taught a different method of thinking (for example, tricking the brain into making movements with areas of the brain that are normally not used for movement). The theory is that this electroencephalographic activity would be translated into muscle responses. The potential is to provide movement and speech for individuals with speech impairments, blindness, and muscular disabilities through a computer, by interpreting the brain’s intent.
This session taught the attendees about considerations, laws, products, and resources related to remodeling a house for accessibility. A wide range of information was distributed such as standard measurements, ADA regulations, examples of real-life homes, standard assessment practices, and where to find useful data. One website that I found particularly helpful regarding introductory concepts was AARP’s at www.aarp.org/universalhome/. It features a virtual home tour, improvement checklists, articles, and examples of products.
Several new developments in the area of robotics were highlighted and demonstrated in prototype. The collection included:
-A therapy arm used to work on strength and range of motion in proper alignment/ergonomics.
-A no-collision wheelchair that has proximity switches so that it stops when near a wall or object.
-A robotic wheelchair arm a long metal reacher with a grasping device that is operated through a joystick.
-A weightless support for persons with fatigue, allowing them to move their arms more freely and with less effort.
Beyond these, the mapping wheelchair seemed especially promising. With it, a person drives around a room and its furniture to develop the layout of the area using lasers and a computer. Afterwards, the user selects a spot on the computer screen and the wheelchair automatically moves to that area. Multiple maps can be saved for easy retrieval. Additional features, such as a communication aid, can be added to the computer and a variety of adaptations, such as scanning and direct touch, can be used to operate the wheelchair and computer.
All the exhibits gave RESNA attendees an opportunity to see different vendors and discuss features or improvements of the product line. Assistive technology has progressed significantly over the past few years. It is more diverse, less costly, and more professional in appearance. In this digital age, everyone uses it daily. It is interesting to see the able-bodied community starting to benefit from and use the same equipment that increases independence for a people with disabilities.
Finally, users of assistive technology have become trendsetters!
Jeni Mundl is the Assistive Technology Specialist at Courage Center.