Answered Questions: Monthly News for the Disability Community for September 2020 on Rehabilitation Engineering

Answered Questions is a monthly resource for the Spanish language Disability Community that fills an information need. This month’s question is: I am a new rehabilitation services provider and would like to learn more about how rehabilitation engineering research helps people with disabilities. What information, research, and resources are available to help me learn more about this topic? This edition of Answered Questions includes items that define rehabilitation engineering and NIDILRR’s Rehabilitation Engineering Research Centers (RERCs); discuss research on wireless inclusive technologies, exercise and recreation technologies, and universal design and the built environment; the use of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) as a tool to increase skills and communication for people with severe disabilities; wireless device use; assistive and therapeutic robots in rehabilitation; and more. More about Answered Questions.

What is Rehabilitation Engineering?

According to the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (in English), rehabilitation engineering (in English) is “the use of engineering principles to 1) develop technological solutions and devices to assist individuals with disabilities and 2) aid the recovery of physical and cognitive functions lost because of disease or injury.” Researchers and engineers design and build devices and systems to meet a wide range of needs to support the independence of people with a variety of disabilities, including mobility and communication disabilities. These devices and systems help people with disabilities with their daily activities related to employment, education, and independent living. They can be as simple as grab bars that reduce risk of falls or picture boards for communicating nonverbally, or as complicated and sophisticated as brain computer interfaces, that allow people with severe disabilities to operate devices by thinking about the activity they want to do.

NIDILRR (in English) currently funds over 40 Rehabilitation Engineering Research Centers that conduct advanced research and development of engineering solutions to issues that people with disabilities face. Each center is affiliated with a rehabilitation setting, which provides an environment for cooperative research and the transfer of rehabilitation technologies into rehabilitation practice. These centers also develop systems for the exchange of technical and engineering information and improve the distribution of technological devices and equipment to people with disabilities.

NIDILRR-Funded Projects:

The Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center (RERC) for Wireless Inclusive Technologies (Wireless RERC)  (in English) integrates emerging wirelessly connected devices, sensors, and services with established wireless technologies for a transformative future where people with disabilities achieve independence, improved quality of life, and enhanced community participation. This RERC works towards the inclusion of consumers with disabilities so that they inform directly the development of wireless devices and services, the increase in social connectedness of people with disabilities across varied environments, and the incorporation of universal design elements to inform cultural and social design of current and future wirelessly connected devices and sensors.

The RERC on Exercise and Recreational Technologies for People with Disabilities (in English) conducts research and development activities that span across the socio-ecological model from community to clinic to address a multitude of barriers to participation in exercise and recreation among adults with physical disabilities. This RERC works towards access to the built environment, participation in chosen exercise and recreational activities, sustainability of exercise and recreational activities, and the health improvements associated with physical activity/exercise and recreation of people with disabilities.

The RERC on Universal Design and the Built Environment (in English) advances accessibility and universal design (UD) in housing, commercial and public buildings, community infrastructure, and transportation. This RERC conducts research, development, training, and dissemination activities to integrate accessibility and UD principles with the generally accepted models, methods, and metrics in the building and product development industries. The short, intermediate, and long-term outcomes of these activities improve physical access, health, and social participation of people with disabilities, while being beneficial for the broader population of users of the built environment. Finally, this RERC provides training activities to increase the knowledge and capacity about accessibility and UD for a wide range of stakeholders, including people with disabilities and their advocates, and offers continuing education for design professionals and service providers through conferences, online modules, and collaborations with partners already serving these populations.

From the NARIC Collection:

Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC):

The article, Using AAC video visual scene displays to increase participation and communication within a volunteer activity for adolescents with complex communication needs (in English), discusses a study from the NIDILRR-funded Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Augmentative and Alternative Communication (in English) that evaluated the effectiveness of videos with integrated visual scene displays (video VSDs) on the number of steps completed successfully by four teens with severe disabilities and complex communication needs during a small group volunteer activity. Each teen was able to complete the volunteer work activities and communication exchanges with co-volunteers with the use of the video VSDs. The results of this study provide preliminary evidence that video VSDs may be an effective assistive technology for people with severe disabilities and complex communication needs to increase participation in volunteer activities – as an instructional support in learning new skills and as an AAC technique to support interaction with others.


The Wireless RERC (mentioned above) (in English) conducts the Survey of User Needs (SUN) and the article, Wireless device use by individuals with disabilities: Findings from a national survey (in English), presents the findings from the SUN for 2017-2018, which has examined wireless technology adoption and use among people with disabilities since 2002. Researchers at the Wireless RERC analyzed the results of this iteration of SUN and found that 88 percent of SUN respondents with disabilities use a smartphone, an increase from previous surveys. The findings suggest a narrowing of the digital “disability divide” and SUN respondents generally reported high usability and satisfaction with their mobile phones.


Assistive and therapeutic robots with social features are currently being used in a variety of rehabilitation services. However, these robots have severe technological and clinical imitations that impede their implementation as successful therapeutic interventions. The article, Research and development needs and the role of rehabilitation engineering in combining therapy and social robot applications (in English), describes the development needs and requirements that must be addressed to increase the effectiveness of social therapeutic robots, both from a technological and a clinical standpoint, and potential solutions.


The article, Participation difference when children with physical disabilities control robots to perform hands-on activities compared to their peers (in English), discusses a study that investigated whether using a robot could increase the amount of participation of children with disabilities in hands-on mathematics measurement activities. The results from the study showed that using the robot did increase the amount of participation of students with disabilities and that there was an increase in student motivation to do the math activities.

Research In Focus:

The article, Mobile Rehabilitation Shows Promise, but Therapists May Benefit from Training and Support, discusses a study from the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center for Community Living, Health and Function (LiveWell RERC) (in English) in which researchers asked rehabilitation providers about their attitudes toward incorporating mobile rehabilitation (mRehab) into their practices. Researchers found that a majority of the study participants indicated that there could be barriers to mRehab, such as a lack of familiarity with mRehab technology or that patients may lack access to the Internet. Participants also agreed that mRehab technologies could be useful to help patients follow through with their prescribed rehabilitation exercise or other interventions. The authors noted that it may be useful to develop training modules for providers to become familiar with emerging mRehab technologies and ways to incorporate them alongside their existing practices.


Further Research:



About Answered Questions

Each month, we look through the searches on our blog and through the information requests made by our patrons who speak Spanish and pick a topic that fills the largest need. Each resource mentioned above is associated with this month’s information need. We search the various Spanish language news sources and feeds throughout the month to bring you these articles. With the exception of the NIDILRR Projects, From the NARIC Collection, and Further Investigation, all the linked articles and resources are in Spanish – any that are in English will be clearly marked.

About mpgarcia

I'm the Bilingual Information/Media Specialist at NARIC.
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