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Duke Receives $4.5 Million Grant to Create 'Virtual' Center to Improve High-Tech Options for Communication Disabilities

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Duke Health News 919-660-1306

DURHAM, NC - Just as advances in technology are making it easier for people with communication disabilities to communicate, the rise of the Internet has made it possible to fashion a "virtual" research center to further improve the communication technology.

Duke University Medical Center researcher Frank DeRuyter, PhD, has assembled leading experts in augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) to create a federally funded virtual research center. The center's goal will be to develop new technologies, or improve existing technologies, for those who never had or who have later lost the ability to communicate.

Using a newly awarded five-year, $4.5 million grant from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, part of the U.S. Department of Education, the new center will connect researchers from clinical medical centers and academia with their counterparts in business and industry, as well as computer and mechanical engineers. Just as important, DeRuyter noted, the people who ultimately will use what is developed by the center will be intimately involved in the process.

DeRuyter has pulled together many of the nation's experts in the AAC field as a part of this new virtual center. In addition to Duke, the five other academic institutions involved are the University of Nebraska, Pennsylvania State University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of New York at Buffalo and Temple University.

The new grant creates one of 13 Rehabilitation Engineering Research Centers (RERC) nationwide that have been created to seek solutions to disability-related problems through the use of technology. This new RERC is intended to further the development of communication, language, natural speech, discourse skills and literacy of children and adults with congenital or acquired disabilities.

"To take advantage of the country's greatest resources in a multi-site collaboration, rather than maintain an extensive effort in a traditional single location, enables us to bring together far greater expertise and provides the necessary resources to bring AAC into the next millennium," said DeRuyter, Duke chief of speech pathology and audiology. "A lot of AAC technology already exists; this center will facilitate our ability to work together to make better use of what we have as well as come up with new solutions and creative strategies.

"There are many clinical, educational, engineering and manufacturing sites across the country with impressive communication enhancement projects under way," he continued. "The ability, through the Internet, to bring all these state-of-the-art locations together to improve (AAC) is truly revolutionary."

Also part of the team are the leading publications in the AAC field - Augmentative Communication News (the largest newsletter in the field), Alternatively Speaking (a newsletter for people who use AAC systems) and ACOLUG, a listserv chatroom for people with communication disabilities.

"This allows us to communicate directly with those individuals who will actually use the systems or strategies that are developed," DeRuyter said. "It is important that throughout the development process, we continue to get input about what works and what doesn't."

As little as five years ago, before the widespread acceptance and use of the Internet, such a virtual center would not have been possible, DeRuyter said. This center serves as a model for future virtual centers in medicine or the sciences, he added.

While the current center will depend heavily on the Internet, the researchers are already looking to the future. In the near future, the successors to the Internet - the Internet II and the NGI (next generation Internet) - will make it even easier for this and future virtual centers to flourish, DeRuyter said. A number of the sites, including Duke, are already wired for Internet II.

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