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Wireless technologies have transformed how we interact with the world, and for people with disabilities they promise new ways to solve problems and overcome barriers. It is a PROMISE which University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences (SHRS) researchers plan to keep–that is, Promoting Mainstream Wireless Inclusion through Technology Services.

With a five-year, $4.6 million grant from Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Community Living, the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center (RERC) is embarking on an ambitious initiative to evaluate and improve wireless technology to optimize its use as a tool for people with disabilities.

RERCs are investigation centers established through the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR) “to improve the effectiveness of services authorized under the Rehabilitation Act by conducting advanced engineering research and development of innovative technologies designed to solve particular rehabilitation problems or remove environmental barriers.”

“Pitt is uniquely positioned to host this RERC,” says SHRS Rehabilitation Science and Technology Associate Professor Dan Ding. “We have strong and diverse health science programs that provide a pool of highly qualified investigators with relevant expertise–those with engineering or technical degrees coupled with significant rehabilitation training and those who have clinical degrees with significant experience in assistive technology delivery, training and funding/policy.”

Ding and Brad Dicianno, professor and endowed research chair in Pitt’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R), will lead PROMISE. Faculty, staff and students across several SHRS programs and in PM&R will conduct the research.

Many of the project’s key investigators are affiliated with the Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL). HERL is a partnership between VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC. The team is also working closely with the VA Assistive Technology Clinic “to develop a service delivery process for smart technology for veterans,” according to Ding.

Ding explains that her current research for people who are at risk of institutionalization (those who receive Medicaid Home & Community Based Services (HCBS) due to physical disability) has identified gaps and opportunities.

“We have heard repeatedly from our participants, family members and caregivers, as well as professionals and organizations who work with [people with disabilities] about the challenges they face regarding technology,” she says.

This project will bring together people of all backgrounds and experiences to create and pilot innovative, viable and scalable technology services to expand access to and support effective use of mainstream wireless technologies among people with varying disabilities.

Dicianno is eager to bring his expertise to the table. “I am excited about this project because it brings together a fantastic team of people with disabilities, community organizations, investigators and other stakeholders. It also provides us with an opportunity to develop better service delivery models for wireless technologies.”

PROMISE will specifically explore opportunities for wireless innovation for mobile devices, smart home devices and smart speakers.

“We recognize that these smart technologies are advancing at a much faster rate than regulations, reimbursement systems, clinician education and the capacity of people with disabilities and families to keep up,” says Ding. “Therefore, in addition to technology advancement, we should also consider other key factors in play such as policy and service provision for these instruments and tools.”

Although smart devices and technology offer new ways for people of all ability levels to engage with the world, there are still barriers, which PROMISE hopes to identify in order to create an informational infrastructure to help industry leaders develop accessible, usable and useful wireless solutions for people with disabilities.

Both Ding and Dicianno have worked together before and are uniquely qualified to lead this project. Dicianno explains, “My research interests lie at the intersection of disability, assistive technology and value-based care. I am passionate about investigating how technologies can improve outcomes for people with disabilities and also improve the delivery of health care and community-based services.”

Dicianno currently directs two NIDILRR-funded Disability and Rehabilitation Research Projects (DRRP) grants related to mobile health technology.

Ding’s research complements this and has centered on smart devices, machine learning and human-machine interaction. “Through my research, I seek opportunities to apply knowledge from these fields to assistive devices and systems for people with disabilities,” she says.