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Team evaluates technologies for the disabled

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Duke Health News 919-660-1306

DURHAM, N.C. – Duke University Medical Center researchers are leading a group of 15 institutions in an international effort to evaluate the performance and effectiveness of assistive technologies – devices that assist people with physical and mental impairments.

The study, funded by a $2.3 million grant from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) of the U.S. Department of Education, will also examine unmet needs and barriers that assistive technologies might create. Researchers will also measure outcomes and explore ways to adapt existing wireless communication technologies for children and adults with congenital or acquired disabilities.

"The assessment will be an integral part in developing new technologies to match unmet needs and to improve existing technologies," said Frank DeRuyter, chief of the Division of Speech Pathology and Audiology at Duke, who is principal investigator of the project.

Assistive technologies constitute a $2.5 billion industry that includes equipment such as motorized wheelchairs, communication devices, hand-controlled pedals on automobiles, voice-recognition software, prostheses and hearing aids, as well as devices as seemingly simple as a walking cane.

"An important aspect of this field of technology is the ability to keep up with the need for newer, more up-to-date technology, as well as technology that addresses multiple needs, not just one," DeRuyter said. For example, manufacturers who make appliances with touch screens instead of buttons inadvertently create a barrier for people who cannot read screens, he said.

The team's projects will include adapting wireless technologies, such as personal digital assistants (PDAs) or tablet computers, for use by the disabled. Researchers also will focus on developing ways to measure how existing technologies are used and how they can be improved.

For example, researchers might attach a microcomputer chip to a wheelchair to record how far a wheelchair travels and the nature of terrain it covers on a given day. Those kinds of data can be important in designing a wheelchair better suited to meeting individual needs, DeRuyter said.

The data collected by the researchers will be used by providers of assistive technologies such as federal agencies, school districts, health care groups and others, DeRuyter said. These providers closely scrutinize the use of assistive technologies, which can be expensive, he pointed out. Wheelchairs can cost as much as $30,000; a prosthetic limb can be as much as $10,000; and a communication device can cost as much as $7,000.

"Because assistive technology is a very rapidly advancing field, funding agencies want to understand how to measure outcomes in assistive technologies," DeRuyter said. There are more than 27,000 different types of assistive technology products, according to a report issued in 1999 by ABLEDATA, an electronic source for information on assistive technology.

The research project will enhance an existing "virtual" research center established by DeRuyter at Duke in 1999 with a $4.5 million grant from NIDRR. As a member of the center -- called a Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center for Communication Enhancement – DeRuyter gathered many of the nation's experts in the field of augmentative and alternative communication. The center is one of 13 such research centers nationwide created to seek solutions to disability-related problems through the use of technology.

The research center connects researchers from clinical medical centers and academia with their counterparts in business and industry, as well as computer and mechanical engineers.

In addition to Duke, the University of Western Ontario, the Institute for Matching Person and Technology in Webster, N.Y., and Boston University will participate in the new five-year project.

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