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Laura Rice

Laura Rice gets grant to extend TechSAge work


A “smart” bathroom optimized for safety and mobility disabilities. A tai chi telewellness program. Fall detection devices for wheelchair users. 

All are projects associated with the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Technologies to Support Aging Among People with Long-Term Disabilities, also known as “TechSAge.”

The research of TechSAge is pressing forward after Kinesiology and Community Health Associate Professor Laura Rice received a $4.6 million grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR) to support another five years of work. 

“We want to make sure people with disabilities are able to live life to their fullest,” Rice said. “We want to make sure as people with disabilities get older, they continue to enjoy the things that they like to do.”

The goal of TechSAge is to meet the needs of people aging with long-term disabilities where they live, work, and play by conducting advanced engineering research and developing innovative technologies.

Recent surveys suggest the needs are pressing: According to current estimates, about 42.5 million Americans report living with a disability, making up roughly 13 percent of the population. That percentage jumps among older adults ages 75 or older, of whom 46 percent report having a disability. 

TechSAge started at Georgia Tech 11 years ago, with then-GT faculty Jon Sanford directing the project with co-directors Wendy Rogers and Tracy Mitzner. Rogers, now a professor in KCH and director of the McKechnie Family LIFE Home research center, moved to the University of Illinois in 2017, and the project’s presence has continued to grow on the Urbana-Champaign campus while the cross-country partnership continued. 

Rogers, Sanford—who is now at Georgia State University—and Mitzner, who is now at Person in Design, will continue as key members of the Leadership Team, along with longtime Project Coordinator, Elena Remillard, now site PI at Georgia Tech. The TechSAge team will continue to engage their vast network of industry partners and community-based stakeholders.  The projects also engage students at all levels, including undergraduates, graduates, and postdocs.

In TechSAge’s third iteration, Rice is the principal investigator, with Rogers continuing as a co-investigator. The Illinois interdisciplinary collaborators include Harshal Mahajan, assistant director of research at the McKechnie Family LIFE Home; Ian Rice, a teaching associate professor in KCH; Katie Driggs-Campbell, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the Grainger College of Engineering; Girish Krishnan, an associate professor in Industrial & Enterprise Systems Engineering in the Grainger College of Engineering; and Deana McDonagh, a professor of Graphic Design in the School of Art + Design.  

“I definitely appreciate that they see something in me, and that I can be a part of leading the next several years of this center,” Rice said. “We have a very collaborative process.” 

Rice arrived in year six of the project, after her colleagues spent five years “laying the foundation” of the Center.  One of the initial projects, led by Illinois Professor Wendy Rogers, involves performing a needs assessment to understand the needs of adults aging with long-term disabilities.  These findings have helped to provide design guidance for the rest of the projects associated with the Center. 

In the last five years, the team has focused on ramping up their interventions and technology solutions to assist the aging of people with long-term disabilities. Jon Sanford and Georgia Tech researcher Brian Jones have spearheaded the “SmartBathroom” at the university’s Aware Home to meet the needs of people with mobility disabilities, for example. 

Much of the lab-based research at Illinois has taken place at the McKechnie Family LIFE Home, the research center dedicated to technological innovations in the home environment. One on-site project led by Katie Driggs-Campbell is focused on developing an assistive robot to help older adults who are blind or low-vision navigate through their space.  Another robotics project co-led by Girish Krishnan and Ian Rice will develop a robot shower to enable safe and independent bathing for older wheelchair users. The LIFE Home will be used for preliminary testing in both robot projects.

“Research can be a hard process, we do have to go slow—especially with technology, we need to make sure that we’re developing things properly so that it will be useful and usable to individuals who are beneficiaries of it,” Rice said. Projects emphasize user-centered design and the inclusion of people aging with disabilities in all stages of the R&D process.

That said, some projects are nearing their release to the public, Rice said. TechSAge researchers at Person in Design and Georgia Tech, Tracy Mitzner and Elena Remillard, have adapted a tai chi intervention to support the needs of adults aging with long-term disabilities, using a telewellness protocol to deliver a physical activity and social engagement opportunity in a safe and supportive manner. 

“In these next five years, we have the ability to take these projects to the next level,” Rice said. 

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