MSU selected for NSF accelerator project to develop new technologies for persons with disabilities

Contact: James Carskadon

a man drives a vehicle adapted for persons with disabilities
An MSU multidisciplinary team is receiving $750,000 as part of the National Science Foundation Convergence Accelerator program for its effort to develop new independent driving technologies for persons with disabilities with virtual reality models that incorporate adaptive driving equipment. (Photo submitted)

STARKVILLE, Miss.—Mississippi State University is one of 16 awardees selected to participate in a National Science Foundation Convergence Accelerator program that is developing new technologies to enhance quality of life and employment opportunities for persons with disabilities.

An MSU team is receiving $750,000 in phase 1 funding for its multidisciplinary effort to develop new independent driving technologies for persons with disabilities. The team, which includes experts in behavioral psychology, rehabilitation counseling, human-centered computing, autonomous vehicles and more, will spend the next year developing virtual reality models that incorporate adaptive driving equipment. By using virtual reality, persons with disabilities can have better access to training for driving technology that increases their opportunities for employment and community connections.

“This project is a great example of MSU’s ability to develop multidisciplinary teams focused on addressing societal challenges,” said MSU Vice President for Research and Economic Development Julie Jordan. “We have faculty and staff working to support a wide range of persons with disabilities through research and applied practice, and this award reflects their outstanding work. I am incredibly proud that MSU will be participating in this impactful NSF program.”

MSU is part of the 2022 NSF Convergence Accelerator cohort, Track H: Enhancing Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities that is working to support use-inspired solutions to grow economic opportunities and enhancement of quality of life for persons with disabilities. Globally, an estimated 1.3 billion people experience disability. Other schools selected as part of the convergence research track include Harvard, Cornell, Northwestern, Stanford and New York universities.

“Transdisciplinary, use-inspired research offers tremendous potential to accelerate novel solutions to the everyday challenges faced by persons with disabilities,” said Erwin Gianchandani, NSF assistant director for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships. “Through the Convergence Accelerator’s Track H, we are bringing together diverse perspectives and expertise spanning academia, industry, nonprofits and other communities to enable solutions and open opportunities for people who need it most.”

The MSU team will identify gaps in research related to independent driving technology, develop and formalize partnerships with key stakeholders and participate in NSF programming over the course of the next nine months. The information gathered from that research will inform the independent driving solutions they develop and prototype for persons with disabilities. At the end of the nine months, MSU will participate in a formal phase 2 proposal and pitch for up to $5 million of additional funding to continue the project.

Kasee Stratton-Gadke, director of the T.K. Martin Center, is the principal investigator on the grant.

“In a rural state like Mississippi, being able to drive is important for employment, recreation, healthcare and many other aspects of life,” Stratton-Gadke said. “If we can help develop economical tools for helping persons with disabilities drive, it will have a significant impact on their level of independence.”

Stratton-Gadke noted that virtual reality can provide cost-effective training for learning several different adaptive technologies and can help people experiencing anxiety or trauma from a vehicle wreck ease into driving.

The T.K. Martin Center has a longstanding program that helps persons with disabilities evaluate and use adaptive driving technologies. With a certified driver rehabilitation specialist on staff, the center conducts training and can provide recommendations for vehicle modifications and adaptive driving equipment that will help persons with disabilities drive.

In addition to Stratton-Gadke serving as the grant’s principal investigator, co-PIs on the project include James Jones, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering; Zaccheus Ahonle, assistant professor in the Department of Counseling, Educational Psychology and Foundations; Lalitha Dabbiru, assistant research professor at the Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems; and Kris Geroux assistive technology director at the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services.

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