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WATCH: Tech breaks down barriers, increases access

Barry Culhane is counting the days until he can finally walk unassisted again.

“I walked into a herniated disc surgery and woke up paralyzed, never expecting that,” says Culhane, who has gained back only some feeling in his legs since then.

Given his positive outlook over the last three years adjusting to life mostly in a wheelchair and decades-long involvement with the Al Sigl Community of Agencies, it comes as no surprise to his peers that Culhane has handled the physical setback so well.

As an Al Sigl board member, Culhane sees firsthand how the company helps nonprofits in upstate New York provide valuable resources to people with special needs. And, by day, working at Rochester Institute of Technology, Culhane routinely sees technological advancements.

Culhane started an alliance between Al Sigl and RIT to focus on research to increase access for all people. Engineering students took part in a co-op program, in which they worked full-time at different Al Sigl agencies, and brought new ideas and energy to the companies. The partnership has contributed to more than 70 effective access technology projects, currently in various stages of production.

“We can help people with some of their health challenges, some of their daily living challenges, and inclusion in our society,” says Culhane.

Dan Phillips, an engineering professor at RIT, spearheads the design projects. He says after the partnership was created, the next move was to try and pinpoint untapped areas of need for people with disabilities. Last spring, two students began the effective access technology co-op program.

“They spent a semester visiting the different organizations, talking to people, and came back over a spring and a summer with over 30 projects,” says Phillips.

LED smart rug

The days spent during co-op at the Rochester Hearing and Speech Center were long, according to fifth-year biomedical engineering student, Crystal Mendoza Paulin. She says her most important discoveries were made by observing every interaction between a group of children with developmental disabilities and their therapists, from classroom settings to break times.

It can be difficult to hold the attention of those children. Mendoza Paulin and her classmate, Adam Podolec, noted the techniques used by therapists to combat the issue. However, they saw that once the children were removed from the classroom and asked to go for a walk, the lack of focus intensified.

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

RIT’s LED smart rug is still in prototype stage and a working product is expected to be ready by the end of the spring semester. The therapists at RHSC agree that using visual cues in its construction, such as lights, can help the children with their mobility skills.

“If it’s not visually appealing to the students, they’re not going to use it,” explains Mendoza Paulin.

All-terrain walker

Brainstorming sessions have continued since the co-op placements last year, with regular meetings called Idea Labs. Phillips gathers the engineering students to discuss fresh technological options for those living with disabilities.

Adults who need assistance walking have long been able to rely on walkers. The senior design team at RIT is in the process of developing a walker they say can easily maneuver dips and bumps on sidewalks and in parks.

“The users will be able to use this lever arm to push themselves along. So they can sit down on the walker and use their arms since their legs might not work so well,” says mechanical engineering student Justin Kibler.

So far, it’s a makeshift all-terrain walker, complete with red and white tires from an old bicycle, for testing.

Aside from the wheelchair, Culhane uses a walker to get around his home and the office. He says he wants to test drive the all-terrain walker when it’s finished, and can hopefully be relieved of some daily challenges, like simply getting into a building.

“I’m constantly hoping the little blue buttons work so that you can get yourself in and out of the doors. And there’s the little things like objects in the way when you’re just trying to wheel down a path,” says Culhane.

GPS smart cane

The students put innovations like these on display each year at RIT’s Effective Access Technology Conference. It’s an event for researchers, service providers and developers to share solutions for access and inclusion. The third of its kind was held last November.

Students led by Professor Tae Oh showed off their work on a GPS smart cane. With input from a partnership with the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, the team is working on the cane’s fifth edition.

“Take a cane, 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 via touch,” explains Phillips.

To assist a blind person, an electronic voice inside the 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.

Culhane says the hope is that some of these future engineers and business owners will develop companies down the line that will produce the devices on a large scale, and help improve Rochester’s economy.

However, for the students working 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,” says Phillips.


Sasha-Ann Simons joined the team at WXXI News as a Multimedia Reporter/Producer. She most often tells stories about the innovation economy and technology in upstate New York as part of a journalism collaborative, and is a fill-in host and regular contributor to WXXI-TV's weekly news magazine program, Need To Know.