Renáta Tichá and Brian Abery.

Under a new grant from the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, ICI‘s Global Disability Rights and Inclusion Program area will explore the use of robotics to support people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) in employment and other aspects of community life in the United States and Japan.

ICI’s Renáta Tichá, Brian Abery (pictured), and Matt Schuelka will collaborate with partners from Ory Laboratories in Japan, The University of Tokyo, and the University of Wisconsin-River Falls to adapt the use of Ory’s “avatar” robot, OriHime. OriHime initially was created to perform tasks that were controlled remotely by people with physical disabilities who were working from home. A café in Tokyo, which opened this summer for a few days of trial operations, used the robots to serve customers and run the store.

The partners will now explore how to use the robots to foster the employment, self-determination, and community inclusion of people with IDD, joined by students and professors from the University of Minnesota’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering.

“Our colleagues around the world have made it very clear that work is what makes people with and without disabilities feel useful and connected to the community,” said Abery. “At the same time, we are desperate for job coaches, who support people with IDD in the workplace. So, we thought, ‘What if a job coach with a physical disability could be offsite, and be in charge of several of these robots that would be supporting workers with IDD?’ It could open up a lot of potential job coaches if they didn’t physically have to be at the workplace.”

The University of Tokyo’s Shinichiro Kumagaya, a pediatrician and associate professor at the Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology, is among the global partners on the project. As a person with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair for mobility and who also directs the University’s disability services office, Kumagaya contributes lived experience to the initiative, along with his technical expertise.

The collaboration is an exploratory step, but will also include a visit to Japan by the U.S. partners to learn about other potential uses of robotics to foster the inclusion of people with IDD in the workplace and to enhance employers’ capacity to hire workers with disabilities.

“We’re excited to work with the engineering department and with the delegation from Japan and to have a robust exchange of ideas that will lead to new technologies that are useful to people with disabilities,” Tichá said.