User-focused Assistive Technology Development

By John Riggins, InvoTek Inc.

InvotekIt was bad enough the car accident took away Charlie’s vocation as a personal trainer. Now it threatened to rob him of his dream of teaching Bible students. That is, until some new assistive technology came into his life.

Assistive technology (AT) tends to be a catchall phrase for any mechanical or electronic device that someone with a disability uses to accomplish every day tasks or gain a bit of independence. To someone with a disability, AT can be the difference between reaching a life goal and simply existing.

One company is breaking the mold of how AT makes its way into the lives of people with disabilities. InvoTek, a small research and development company in Alma, Arkansas collaborates with researchers and clinicians across the nation to solve the unique problems of the community of people with disabilities. With the help of Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Education, InvoTek and its collaborators investigate specific disability issues, create prototypes, test them with people with disabilities, and then commercialize the devices. This comprehensive approach to collaboration results in better outcomes for the user.

Safe Laser SystemA great example of this collaboration is the upcoming launch of the Safe Laser System at the May Abilities Expo in the New York Metro area. The University of Nebraska, the Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Lincoln and InvoTek received an SBIR grant to study communication options for people with “locked in syndrome” (LIS). With LIS, the person is cognizant yet is unable to move. Traditional eye-gaze methods for communication may be cumbersome and require a good communication partner to be effective. The team developed a safe laser pointer that a person could use to point to a large grid with letters or symbols. They then gave the pointer to seven patients for a period of up to six months and studied how effective it was at increasing head movement and improving communication. The results were impressive. Five of the seven learned to use the laser pointer to communicate and at the same time developed greater head movement.

InvoTek and its collaborators then took the prototype and, with the help of partners with various disabilities, created the Safe Laser System. It is eye safe so it can be used with adults and children. It also doesn’t require the user to be positioned precisely in front of the system. While the user can wear the safe-laser on a headband, it can also be used on the hand, the toe, or anywhere that makes it easy for the user to operate. The Safe Laser System can be used to generate digitized speech, to type into a computer, and to control a person’s environment such as lights, heating and cooling, and the television.

For Charlie, AT and the Safe Laser System means he can now go to school to be a teacher. Using the Safe Laser System, combined with other AT devices such as Dragon Natural Speaking, he can write his assignments. According to Charlie, “With the Safe Laser System, I’m now enrolled in Bible College and have a way to write my papers.” That’s the real definition of assistive technology.

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Founded in 1988, InvoTek specializes in applying technology to the needs of people with severe disabilities. InvoTek also established the Be Extraordinary program in cooperation with the Arkansas Spinal Cord Commission. The program identifies people with severe disabilities who want to accomplish a life goal. The goal can be wide ranging—improved participation in their health care, access to books, better communication with family or friends, the ability to advocate on their own behalf, or accomplish an educational or vocational goal. Be Extraordinary accepts tax-deductible contributions from generous donors to fund the projects.

For more information on InvoTek and the Be Extraordinary program, please visit www.invotek.org or www.facebook.com/invotek.

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