New technology could offer more independence to disabled veterans

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Nearly 4.2 million U.S. veterans deal with service-connected disabilities, many of whom required housing assistance in one form another to be able to live independently. Among these are about 42,000 veterans with severe spinal cord injuries and disorders. Researchers at Texas A&M University are working on new technology that could enhance independence for these veterans.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) oversees a program offered to veterans and service members with certain service-connected disabilities called Specially Adapted Housing (SAH), which provides funds to modify or construct an adapted home to meet their needs. Typical adaptations include ramps, wider halls and doors, or wheelchair-accessible bathrooms.

But there are many other emerging technologies that could improve home adaptions or enhance a veteran or service member’s ability to live independently, such as voice-recognition and voice-command operations, living environment controls and adaptive feeding equipment. The VA has defined this as new assistive technology (AT), an advancement that could aid or enhance the ability of a veteran or service member to live in an adapted home.

To help improve this new assistive technology, the VA is awarding Specially Adapted Housing Assistive Technology (SAHAT) Grants. Hangue Park, assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, along with Jeonghee Kim, assistant professor in the Department of Engineering Technology and Industrial Distribution, have received a $200,000 SAHAT grant to work on their own assistive technology device.

Park said he and Kim had been working on types of assistive technology since their doctoral studies 10 years ago, but it wasn’t enough. “We were not satisfied with what we did and we think there is still a long way to go for ATs for severely disabled individuals,” he said.

Park said most people with quadriplegia still depend on old assistive technologies such as the sip’n’puff, head-switch and mouth-stick in spite of their limited functionality and accessibility.

“It is mainly because they are intuitive, robust, easy-to-use and price competitive,” he said. “However, those basic ATs do not support multiple commands and cannot handle multiple devices such as computers, powered wheelchairs and smartphones. Indeed, a considerable effort has been put out to develop advanced ATs for people with quadriplegia. However, one of the main reasons that advanced ATs fail in the market is because they’re difficult to operate or learn. As advanced ATs have versatile functionalities with a more complex operating principle, command intuitiveness becomes more and more important to reduce the cognitive burden.”

To address this issue and make the advanced and intuitive AT available, the researchers proposed a new Multifunctional intraORal Assistive technology (MORA). MORA employs intuitive intraoral (occurring within the mouth) commands and motion-dependent sensory feedback to make the advanced ATs more convenient and easier to use. Park said the intraoral function is intact for most people even after a high-level spinal cord injury because intraoral organs are designed to perform sophisticated and repetitive motor tasks, and motion-dependent sensory feedback is crucial for the new motor learning.

“MORA will be easily accepted by people with quadriplegia and promote their sustained functional independence as a one-stop shop to control multiple devices and intuitive interface to the environment with minimal cognitive burden,” he said.

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