Breakthroughs in technology build pathways to inclusion

No one wants to be left out or left behind. It’s human nature to want to participate in life to the fullest, to have the opportunity to access what we want and need in this world.

But for those who have sensory, mobility or cognitive issues, that access is too often limited. Truth is, it doesn’t have to be. By law, it’s not supposed to be. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act, enacted 24 years ago, includes provisions designed to increase access for those who need such assistance.

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Often, we think of these provisions as automatic doors and wheelchair ramps. But as our society has become ever more fast-paced, what is needed often requires a bit more sophistication.

At Rochester Institute of Technology, we’re taking on the challenge of creating tools to make the world more accessible for those with hearing, vision, mobility or other physical and cognitive issues. Often people are faced with multiple challenges, especially true among our growing senior citizen population and returning veterans, our wounded warriors. 

We at RIT are working to invent ways of connecting people and providing independence through the development of new technologies or the adaptation of those that already exist. From advanced robotics to new technologies for hearing or visual impairment to the use of social and interactive media, RIT researchers are developing remarkable new pathways to inclusion.

Some examples of work underway:

  • The “See-through, Life-sized Interactive Monitor” (SLIM), developed at our National Technical Institute for the Deaf. Deaf students benefit greatly when they can read the teacher’s lips and see facial expressions during class. But when a teacher turns their back to make notes on the blackboard, that essential communication is lost. SLIM features two large, see-through monitors placed back-to-back. The teacher faces the classroom, and what they "write" on one screen is reversed on the other for students to view.
  • A “smart cane” prototype, a low-cost, lightweight instrument that will aid deaf-blind persons in navigating surroundings via real-time tactile and directional force feedback and guidance.
  • e-Nable, a social network developed by an RIT professor. This worldwide network connects those in need of prosthetic limbs with people who have 3D printers to design, print, and build them. While the cost of a commercially produced hand would range from $10,000 to $80,000, the raw materials for a printed hand can cost as little as $50, enabling children, in particular, to have a succession of new hands customized as they grow.

These are just three examples of the work underway at RIT.  Since 2006, RIT faculty and students have completed more than 50 capstone engineering design projects aimed at helping people by developing assistive devices, workplace adaptations or rehabilitation aids for individuals and organizations in the Greater Rochester area. Currently, RIT - with support and assistance from community and national partners - has more than 60 ongoing projects totaling almost $16 million in funding related to access technology. 

We’ll be showcasing these projects and others at our second annual Effective Access Technology Conference, set for June 17 and 18 at the Rochester Riverside Convention Center.  Highlighting our focus on serving the veteran community, Will Gunn, general counsel for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, will give opening remarks at the conference. Attendees will also hear from Christian Vogler, director of the Technology Access program at Gallaudet University; Mike Haynie, executive director and founder of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University, whose initiative training in entrepreneurship and small business management to post-9/11 disabled veterans has received national media coverage; and our own RIT researchers, including Jon Schull, organizer of e-Nable, and Richard DeMartino, director of our Simone Center for Student Innovation and Entrepreneurship where students are working on several projects in collaboration with agencies serving individuals with disabilities.

RIT fully embraces the ideal of “Making Excellence Inclusive.” It’s the guiding principle for access, student success and high-quality learning put forth by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Our work on access technology is just one way that we bring this principle to life. 

Raffaelle is vice president for research and associate provost at RIT.