Vol. 18 •Issue 16 • Page 17
At SUNY Buffalo’s Center for Assistive Technology
As technology becomes more advanced, individuals with disabilities stand to gain more benefits from its use. Multidisciplinary staff in the Center for Assistive Technology (CAT) at the University at Buffalo, part of the State University of New York, are working to expand the use, development and availability of assistive technology (AT). The Center, founded in 1988 by then-occupational therapy department chair William Mann, PhD, OTR, FAOTA, follows the same three-fold mission as the university itself: research, education and service.
“[Dr. Mann] saw the field of technology becoming very important in rehabilitation and daily living,” explained Joseph P. Lane, MBPA, director of CAT. “We started working with the faculty of the OT department to develop programs that would fit both their interests and the mission of the center.”
Today the CAT has evolved into a separate, multidisciplinary institution incorporating OT as well as physical therapy, speech pathology, nursing, engineering, architecture and education.
A strong dedication to research has enabled CAT to identify and pursue the needs of assistive technology users and manufacturers. Research and development projects here target several aspects of the AT process, including technology transfer, training, distribution, development and evaluation.
Staff efforts have won grants from the National Institute for Disability Rehabilitation and Research (NIDRR) at the U.S. Department of Education as well as other private and government funds.
The NIDRR-funded Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center (RERC) on Technology Transfer plays a major role in bringing new technologies to market. The program is in its second five-year funding cycle from the NIDRR (it was funded as the RERC on Technology Evaluation and Transfer in the first cycle) and has two separate initiatives.
The Demand Pull Project identifies unmet needs in the assistive technology industry and seeks out expertise in other industries to meet those needs. A new project each year targets a different segment of the AT industry.
The first project, in 1998, targeted wheeled mobility. In collaboration with the RERC on Wheeled Mobility at the University of Pittsburgh, the project identified seven main problem areas in wheeled mobility technology: geared hubs for manual wheelchairs, motors, transmissions, improved tires, battery monitoring and battery charging. Currently, the project is working with a number of industry partners, including a company to create the geared hubs for manual wheelchairs and another developing a new battery power management system.
Other Demand Pull Projects focus on Hearing Enhancement and on Communication Enhancement.
The second facet of the RERC on Technology Transfer is the Supply Push Program, designed to seek out innovative new technology and “push” it into the market by connecting developers with manufacturers. Projects to date include an automated jar opener, an epileptic seizure monitor and an adaptive device for gasoline pumps for individuals with limited motor control or hand strength.
The Assistive Technology Training Online Project (ATTO) is a web-based training resource aimed at educating teachers, parents, therapists, administrators and others on the use of assistive technology for children with disabilities in elementary school classrooms.
Funded primarily by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services (OSERS), the ATTO brings together overviews of the different technologies available, guides for choosing the right technology based on the child’s needs, resources on the place of AT in school policies, and tutorials on specific software products.
Other funded research includes the Instant Access to Braille project, which distributes a refreshable Braille notetaking device to blind children in inclusive classrooms. The CAT has also subcontracted with the RERC on Technology and Aging, which Dr. Mann established at the University of Florida after he departed the CAT in 2000. Projects include an assessment of home-based monitoring and communication technologies and an investigation of “Smart Houses.”
Education and Service
As the CAT began expanding its research goals, the staff also saw the need to support its mission through educational programs on AT. Currently the center supports both a PhD program and a certificate program, in addition to other educational programming.
The PhD program, based in the university’s school of health related professions, in rehabilitation science is lead by Nadine Fisher, EdD, a member of the OT department faculty, and incorporates faculty from OT as well as architecture, communication disorders, nursing, physical therapy, rehabilitation counseling, rehabilitation medicine and sports medicine. According to Lane, the program plans to expand the presence of the architecture department as well as include engineering faculty.
The certificate program in Assistive and RehabilitationTechnology, offered through the OT department, is run by James Lenker, MS, OTR/L, ATP, an engineer and OT. The certificate includes six courses on wheeled mobility and seating, ergonomics and job modification, rehab environments, outcomes measures and two courses on computer access, as well as over 300 hours of experiential fieldwork/practicum work.
The Center for International Rehabilitation Research Information and Exchange, funded by OSERS, facilitates the sharing of rehabilitation research through a web-based database, and supports internationally-oriented networking and information dissemination among rehabilitation researchers.
To fulfill its mission of service, the CAT also provides services directly to AT consumers, mostly based within the western New York region. Staff at the Center work through vocational rehab agencies, school districts or other agencies to provide assistive technology assessment and training, predominantly to school children, college- or job-oriented individuals and individuals with vision impairments.
The Design and Fabrication Services unit, an independent affiliate at CAT, can perform prototype development, design, fabrication and repair services. The unit serves CAT projects, other SUNY Buffalo needs, as well as independent clients in the community.
CAT also serves as a regional Technology Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities (TRAID) center for western New York. The national TRAID project is funded by NIDRR, established to support the development of statewide consumer-responsive technical assistance programs for persons with disabilities.
Dynamics of AT
The Center is working hard to fulfill the needs of assistive technology consumers. However, that is not always an easy goal. “The key is really staying abreast with what is available,” said Lane. “Many people reinvent things that already exist because they didn’t know [what was out there].”
Lane recommends therapists interested in AT network through the Abledata search engine (www.abledata.com), their state’s technology assistance program, funding entities such as NIDRR, and professional organizations such as AOTA and the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA).
Of course, awareness about AT will not necessarily combat the other major obstacle in the industry: funding. But Lane sees the approach to funding for technology changing over the next decade as baby boomers age and develop assistance needs.
“Baby boomers [will be] spending discretionary funds rather that seeking funding,” Lane concluded. “They have been employed their whole life [and] have pensions or retirement funds, and they will want to retain function. I think we’ll see more universal design, and more mainstream companies entering the field.”
Jill Diffendal is ADVANCE senior associate/ online editor.