Innovative technology for people with disabilities

Design and creativity are front and center at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Professors and students alike are partnered with a local organization in Rochester, New York to improve access to people with a variety of disabilities through innovative technology solutions.


Design and creativity are front and center at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Professors and students alike have partnered with a local organization in Rochester, New York, to improve access for people with a variety of disabilities through innovative technology solutions.

Here's a look.

This is a really cool tool.

Barry Culhane is counting the days until he can finally walk again without help.

I walked into a herniated-disk surgery and woke up paralyzed.

Never expecting that.

The trained psychologist and former Army medic didn't let the sudden physical setback change his positive outlook.

I'm an eternal optimist.

So, I kind of looked at this like, well, every path has its puddle, and this is gonna be mine for a little while.

He's made progress since the incident and thinks he'll be rid of the wheelchair and using only a walker in a few months.

Culhane has served for years on the board of the Al Sigl Community of Agencies and sees firsthand how the company helps nonprofits in upstate New York provide resources to people with special needs.

Meanwhile, his day job is at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where breakthrough technological advancements are practically at his fingertips.

Culhane convinced the two organizations to work together to focus on access and inclusion for everyone.

Fast-forward a few years, and the partnership between Al Sigl and RIT has contributed to more than 70 effective access-technology projects.

Dan Phillips is an engineering professor at RIT who spearheads the design projects.

Using that technology to provide people, regardless of what abilities they have, better access to the things that we all have access to is really the effective part.

Last year, Phillips sent two students to take part in a co-op program.

For a semester, they worked full-time at different Al Sigl agencies, observed each workflow, and then began brainstorming.

Crystal Mendoza Paulin and her partner came back to RIT with dozens of ideas.

Our first week was actually with the Rochester Hearing and Speech Center, and the first project that actually jumped out at us was the idea of a smart rug.

The student noticed some challenges for the therapists working with children with developmental disabilities.

Grabbing their attention during class time was one thing.

But she says once the kids were removed from the classroom and asked to go for a walk, the lack of focus intensified.

So, we thought, well, if we could put out, like, a mat along the hallway and maybe do some lights or other attention-calling -- something that would focus them -- that would help them just with that motor planning of walking down the hallway with their teachers and other students.

The rug is in pieces right now, but the school's industrial-design team is hard at work trying to perfect it.

The first module would start interacting, emitting lights and sounds.

Once the child approaches the first module, it would stop blinking and interacting.

And then the second module would start working.

Once you get to the second one, the third would start, and then so on.

[ Buzzes ]

Nearby on campus, the senior design team is working on other inventions.

One group is developing an all-terrain walker for people with disabilities like cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis.

They say it will easily trudge through dips and bumps on sidewalks and in parks.

So, this is just like a prototype?


It's just something we were using as a testing rig.

And this is a ratchet on the actual wheel.

And the user will be able to use this lever arm to push themselves along.

So, they can sit down on the walker and use their arms to push themselves because their legs might not work so well to do that.

Each year the projects are put on display at RIT's Effective Access Technology Conference.

It's an event for researchers and developers to share solutions for access and inclusion.

The third conference was held last November.

And this is the latest one.

So, here we have implemented the innovation, using these two sensors...

To assist a blind person, an electronic voice inside this smart cane can warn of an oncoming obstacle, and using vibration on the cane's left or right side can tell the person which direction to avoid.

Take a cane.

And now GPS, couple it with some sensors to give you an idea of proximity of a curb or a wall, integrate it all together, and then provide the feedback basically via touch.

Culhane says he hopes that down the line, these future engineers and business owners will develop companies that will produce the devices on a larger scale.

But for the students working right alongside the people who need the technology the most, their fulfillment comes simply from making a difference.

It changes them, and that's something you can't put in a curriculum.