March 2023
Nao, a socially assistive robot, with its hand on its hip.

Nao, a socially assistive robot, is the subject of an ICI research poster that was displayed at CEHD Research and Innovation Day 2023 on March 23. The poster summarizes ICI’s collaboration with the University’s College of Science and Engineering that is exploring the use of robots equipped with artificial intelligence to interact with people who are aging and encourage them to be physically active. It is one of seven research posters that ICI displayed at this year's event.

Preparing with several colleagues for CEHD Research and Innovation Day 2023 on March 23, the Institute on Community Integration’s Renáta Tichá decided to step back and really think about how community members and fellow researchers experience these information-sharing events.

“When we were talking about putting together our poster, I realized that three of the people who are working on the research grant with me are people with disabilities themselves, and I was just curious to know from them how they have experienced research poster sessions in the past,” said Tichá, a senior research associate at the Institute. “Do these events even matter to them?”

One of her colleagues, Roqayah Ajaj, who is blind, shared that she rarely attends these events anymore, in part because she doesn’t have consistent access to aides who can attend the event and accurately describe the posters.

That led to conversations about trying a few things for this year’s event to learn what accessibility measures worked or didn’t work. They created a braille version of their handouts, which were also made accessible for people who use screen readers. Another colleague reviewed the content for plain-language accessibility and helped create a glossary of terms that would make the research clear to a non-scientific visitor or someone with intellectual disability, among other ideas.

“Many times, speakers will point to their posters without describing the visuals, and if I have someone with me, they will try to describe them, but the information often gets lost, so my colleague, Emily Unholz-Bowden, and I are making sure that we not only have visuals but we are confident in engaging with people to describe them,” along with the technical accessibility features, she said.

The group’s work focuses on improving programs for youth with disabilities who are transitioning from high school to adult life, part of a five-year initiative with Minnesota’s Departments of Employment and Economic Security, Education, and Human Services; local education agencies, and other organizations.

“Through a landscape analysis we are trying to highlight the challenges of youth with disabilities who are roughly 16 to 23 years old,” Tichá said. “We’re finding that these programs can be quite segregated, but by having the state leadership on this project, we are hopeful that the transition tools being built will be used in conjunction with real opportunities to connect to competitive employment and integrated post-secondary education.”

Tichá also led a poster summarizing ICI’s collaboration with the University’s College of Science and Engineering that explores the use of robots equipped with artificial intelligence to interact with people who are aging and encourage them to be physically active. Enhancing Physical Activity Among Older Adults Using Nao, a Socially Assistive Robot (SAR) is funded through a CEHD Jump Start seed grant.

Nao can dance, ask questions, tell jokes, move around, and complete many other tasks, said Maryam Mahmoudi, an ICI researcher. Programmed to provide access to objects for individuals with physical disabilities and aging adults, Nao can also engage in reciprocal conversations with a high level of accuracy, and even understand a variety of accents.

“Right now, the applications are for encouraging physical activity and decreasing loneliness, but in the future, we hope it will be used for people with disabilities who want to live independently,” she said.

Unlike robots that speak from a list of programmed possible responses, Nao can engage in spontaneous conversation, Tichá said.

“It’s really exciting, despite some apprehension from service providers about having this robot interact with clients,” she said. “I understand family members who might be concerned about the implications of ChatGPT, but as a researcher I know we need to try this given the caregiver staffing shortage.”

Another Research Day poster, Exploring Post-school Goal Expectations of Students with Disabilities, was led by former ICI Director David R. Johnson and colleagues Yi-Chen Wu and Martha Thurlow. Particularly among students with significant cognitive disabilities who take alternative assessments and English learners with disabilities, Johnson said, there is still much work to be done to boost participation in planning for post-school transitions.

“This work centers around the long-term aspirations of students and how they think about achieving goals after high school,” Johnson said. “There are still a lot of gaps when it comes to whether families are receiving the information they need about opportunities, including how to finance postsecondary education opportunities, for example.”

Disparities in Service Access and Waitlists for People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities highlighted differences in service availability, and in the reporting of services, among states. These differences can mask important trends that highlight critical areas of need, said Jon Neidorf, an ICI researcher.

“Knowing about these differences matters in terms of understanding the urgency of services needed in a state,” he said. “States may report that they don’t even have a waiting list, but our poster will push back on that idea and show that doesn’t mean that people are actually getting a sufficient level of services.”

Understanding how states report this data can offer perspective on issues such as the staffing crisis, said Brian Begin, who works on the Institute’s Residential Information Systems Project, a longitudinal study of long-term supports and services.

“If states don’t have a sufficient number of direct support professionals, they won’t be able to support people with disabilities to come off the waitlist,” he said.

Another poster, The Self-Determined Career Development Model Supporting People with Disabilities: A Systematic Synthesis, highlighted the many barriers that people with disabilities encounter in seeking employment, said ICI’s Julie Kramme.

“A persistent approach with the appropriate level of support, along with opportunities for people to practice self-determination, will help people meet their goals,” Kramme said.

Innovative Tips: Engaging Parents/Caregivers who are Culturally and Linguistically Diverse was presented by ICI’s Charity Funfe Tatah Mentan and Marianna Quanbeck.

"Educators need fresh, actionable strategies to help them better understand the unique needs of students and their families," Funfe Tatah Mentan said. "Particularly for families participating in individualized education plans (IEPs), language and cultural barriers and a lack of empathy from educators can lead to lack of access to educational resources or inequities in services."

And Yue Wu, a post-doctoral fellow at ICI, presented her work with Light in the Well, an original music production promoting inclusion for individuals with disabilities.