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Assistive technology expo showcases new engineering solutions for the disabled

Assistive technology

Students, device manufacturers, and medical professionals converged in September for the 27th annual Assistive Technology Expo.

Organized by a half-dozen organizations, including the Department of Mechanical Engineering and UW-CREATe, the 2011 Assistive Technology Expo showcased some of the latest advances in technology that can offer people with disabilities new opportunities to participate in school, employment and community life.

The 27-year-old expo, which was held in the Mechanical Engineering and Engineering Centers buildings in late September, brings together medical professionals, technology designers, and users of assistive technology, with the idea that all three groups learn more about what's available, what's being developed, and how new solutions can help people with disabilities.

According to the U.S. Census, one in five Americans is classified as having a disability, meaning they are unable to perform one or more activities of daily living.

At the expo, undergraduate and graduate students showed off projects they'd built, while companies and campus groups demonstrated a variety of currently available resources, with the intent of both inspiring fellow designers, and showcasing options for medical professionals and consumers alike. 

"If you're getting a car or a bike you might go to a store, and you might have a lot of understanding of what you need ahead of time," says Mechanical Engineering Professor Jay Martin, who helped organize this year's expo. 

With assistive technology, though, a third party--a medical professional such as a physical or occupational therapist--is usually involved in the decision-making process, especially if a person is cognitively disabled, or is new to disability. 

"They might not know what they need," says Martin. "We think an informed consumer is going to be a much happier consumer and have a better experience with their assistive technology."

New technology includes improved wheelchairs, e-readers specially designed for people with dexterity problems, office chairs, lifts, and amplification systems for people with vocal injuries. Some exhibits at the expo went beyond basic needs to expanding the world for the disabled, such as an all-terrain wheelchair with tank-like treads that could allow people to go just about anywhere a person on foot could go. 

Other exhibits took a stab at solving a perennial issue in assistive technology: how to clean a wheelchair that's dirty from snow, rain, or other outdoor grime. "If you brought your car in during the winter, what would your house look like?" says Martin. "This is an amazingly difficult problem." 

This year's exhibit, a washer that wheelchair users could simply ride over before entering the house, did not entirely solve the problem, he says, but it's a start.

In the interest of helping consumers and medical professionals make these decisions, guest speakers demonstrated useful iPad and Android apps that can help people with a variety of disabilities communicate better, and interactive technologies enabling people with mobility issues to exercise.

In a talk at the expo, Beth Finke, a National Public Radio commentator who has lived with blindness since her 20s, talked about the technology she uses, and what else she'd like to have in her life. 

For example, she said, she might like to have something like a seeing-eye dog that wasn't actually a dog. Particularly in big cities, life can be stressful for seeing-eye dogs, and Finke said her current dog was no longer able to function around traffic after a recent incident on the busy streets of Chicago. And people who become blind later in life, she said, often break bones because they fear the stigma of the iconic white cane.

Martin says such issues are exactly what mechanical engineers should keep in mind when they design assistive technology. The design must, he says, be user-oriented. 

"If a piece of assistive technology calls attention to the fact that they have a disability, then people maybe don't want it," Martin says. "If the design is a good design, stigma won't enter into the picture, and people will use it because it helps them." 

For example, he says, many people who are deaf now can use hearing aids as part of their jewelry. "There are some really neat designs out there," he says. 

One exciting, but still underdeveloped, field is that of assistive robotics, which potentially could replace human assistants for people who need help with personal care and other tasks. Such technology, Martin says, could extend to help the general population, as more people age into disability and fewer people are available to work in assistive capacities. 

"If someone needs assistance and they primarily rely on humans to do that for them, then we've got a problem," he says. "It's a neat place where assistive technology could lead, where development for individuals with disabilities could have a universal impact on systems for all people." 


Christie Taylor
10/24/2011