Engineering new opportunities

For more than four years, the rehabilitation engineering and technology program has been working to make the lives of disabled people a little easier by developing technology solutions so that the disabled can both work and play.

“Our focus has been on employment,” said Stephen Sundarrao, associate director, “but we’re also looking at recreation, because ultimately, you know, why do we go to work? To get money. And we make money because we can probably take the weekend to do something that we enjoy.”

According to the 2000 Census, the number of noninstitutionalized people with any disability is about 250 million, with 28 percent who “own special equipment or technology to assist them because of their disability.”

The numbers are likely to go up, too, because of the rising age of the population and the need for work.

The 1998 National Organization on Disability/Harris Poll of Americans with Disabilities, a nationwide survey of 1,000 Americans aged 16 and older with disabilities, found that Americans with disabilities do not have as many of their basic needs met as those without disabilities, and that “large gaps still exist between adults with disabilities and other adults with regard to employment, education, income, frequency of socializing and other basic measures of 10 major ‘indicator’ areas of life.”

In the rehabilitation engineering and technology field, students and professors work with professional engineers and technicians.

Sundarrao said USF’s program is unique.

“There are places that do research, and they’re quite successful at the research, but they don’t have the service delivery element, so whatever research they do, although it’s successful, it’s probably limited to a lab or workshop-type setting,” he said. “Whereas we have the opportunity to (take) whatever research that we do (and) transfer it into the field, and we also have a network of manufacturers that we work with.”

The department has two labs and a van that allows them to test new driving methods for those with a limited range of motion and flexibility.

Professors and students in the rehabilitation engineering and technology program find practical ways for those with disabilities to perform tasks that most able-bodied people take for granted, like opening doors and reaching for items. They also develop recreational devices. They are currently working on a mechanism that will allow a person with limited movement to roll a bowling ball down a bowling alley.

Sundarrao said he estimates that the department serves about 1,500 clients.

“We meet with each individual, identify what kinds of barriers they might have because of their disability and then recommend technology,” he said.

All mechanical engineering students must design and develop a product in order to get a degree, Sundarrao said.

Before the program was implemented, mechanical engineering students had quite a different experience.

“They used to design toys for McDonald’s,” said Sundarrao.

Now they invent hi-tech solutions to help people. Sundarrao said not all of what has been developed is ready to be commercialized.

He said his experience with the students has been great because it’s like “having 60 engineers at our disposal.”

Sundarrao also said he has gotten good feedback from clients.

“Independence is the key, so anything that we can do to make somebody more independent, the more we empower that person to participate (in life),” Sundarrao said.

T.J.’s Birthday Present

For his birthday, 9-year-old T.J., who has cerebral palsy, received a modified tricycle and tandem bicycle on May 21 from the College of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical Engineering.

The engineering students purchased and altered a reversed-position tricycle. They even lengthened the tricycle by four inches so that it could grow with T.J.

The bicycle got a power seat assembly from a Cadillac and a hydraulic steering system. An adjustable pivot was also used so T.J. could balance.

T.J.’s “real” birthday was May 23, and according to Sundarrao, he loves the gifts.