Students to unveil advanced technology for people with communication barriers

Assistive technologies for people with communication disorders have come a long way in recent years. Apps on tablets, like iPads, help people with speech barriers to communicate their thoughts. Still, current technology is limited in that it does not allow users to clearly convey tone of voice, mood or individual personality.

Fortunately, undergraduate engineering students at Penn State and in South Africa are working to eliminate that communication barrier and will unveil the results of their efforts at the Learning Factory College of Engineering Design Showcase at 1 p.m. on April 28 at the Bryce Jordan Center.

The Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Augmentative and Alternative Communication (RERC on AAC) — created through a $5 million federal grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research to Penn State and partner institutions — asked engineering students to develop assistive technologies that give a true voice to people with communicative disorders related to autism, stroke, traumatic brain injury, ALS, Down syndrome or cerebral palsy.

Fourteen Penn State students have been working throughout the spring 2016 semester to answer the request. David McNaughton, professor of special education with a dual appointment in communication sciences and disorders, is mentoring students leading up to the showcase.

“This project helps create a greater awareness of the needs of people with disabilities, so whatever work these students go into, hopefully, that awareness will play a role in their designs,” McNaughton said. “Ultimately, this process allows students to better understand the needs of people with disabilities and gets them to think about how technology can play a vital role.”

Students also met regularly with Godfrey Nazareth, a biomedical engineer who works on RERC on AAC projects and who himself has a diagnosis of ALS, in order to ensure that their technical development work addresses the needs of persons with disabilities.

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