Rehabilitation computing

Rehabilitation computing is the use of computer methods to provide facilities which could be helpful to people with disabilities. There are all manner of activities which come under that definition, such as domestic machines and robotics, computer applications in assessment techniques which evaluate people's abilities and disabilities, databases of useful devices and software, electronic mail, and so on.

Rehabilitation computing is a branch of rehabilitation engineering, which shares the same aims but broadens the repertoire of techniques used, drawing on all branches of engineering. Rehabilitation engineering, in turn, falls under the heading of biomedical engineering, in which engineering applications in any sort of medical field are investigated.

My interests lie mainly in the areas of computer-assisted communication techniques for physically disabled people and using machines of various sorts for rehabilitation purposes. As well as these major topics, I have touched on several other fields, which I have grouped together as "the rest".

I've been interested in rehabilitation computing since about 1985; you can read a bit about the boring details if you like. That's quite a long time, and I would like to be able to point to a commensurate body of work, but I can't. Still, I continue to plod along, and would welcome any interest from other potential plodders.

Computer-assisted communication.

This is perhaps the most actively developed field within the subject of rehabilitation computing, with many groups working on a wide variety of approaches. Many people physically unable to communicate unaided in ordinary ways can do so by means of computers.

On the clinical side, communication technology is studied as a part of augmentative and alternative communication ( AAC ), a regrettably clumsy title which unfortunately seems to have stuck. In this area, computer techniques take their place with many others, some requiring only comparatively simple machinery, and some none at all. It is salutary to be reminded that computers are by no means indispensable for many disabled people, and that even in cases where they might be expected to be useful other approaches are frequently of value. AAC is practised by therapists of various flavours, notably, but not exhaustively, speech language therapists and occupational therapists.

As well as engineering and clinical matters, computer-assisted communication is a special case of computer-human interface studies.This is just as well, because it justified - to me, if to no one else - my preoccupation with rehabilitation systems even though I was paid to do computing. I argued that rehabilitation computing, being just a part of the broader topic of people using computers, is a natural part of computing, and that computer-assisted communication makes an important contribution to the study of human-computer interfaces. The inclusion of special types of interface designed for people with various sorts of special needs is valuable as a reminder that interfaces designed for people with perfect muscular control of their hands and perfect vision is not enough - and also that the special cases are essential to test any theories of human-computer interaction in extreme cases.

I'm interested in communications using several parallel channels.

Machines for rehabilitation.

While communication aids can be of great help to people with disabilities which interfere with their abilities to communicate, they don't exhaust the field. Many people have physical disabilities which don't in any way impair their communication skills; for other people, the disabilities which hinder their communication also hinder other activities which most people take for granted. Computers have great potential for being of assistance in these areas too, though usually in conjunction with other sorts of machinery. That isn't an accident; to assist someone's communication, one is likely to want a machine which is good at communicating, and computers fit the bill very well; but for assistance with moving about or controlling the environment, one requires motors and tools of various sorts. The computers are still there because in order to use a tool one must control it - and to do that some sort of communication with the tool is necessary, and that is where the computers come in.

I'm interested in applications of robots and related machines, and have pottered with domestic communications networks for environment control.

The rest.

Several other topics have come my way from time to time, and I have therefore had a little experience in a rather wide range of areas. It's been interesting, I've learnt a lot, and it was perhaps just about worth while - but it would have been nice to finish a few. If anyone's interested, I can talk about them, but they are not active, and are unlikely to become so. Here are the projects.

Alan Creak,
2000 December.

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Go to Computer Science.