Access Assistant: a new KPR project funded by NIDILRR

Koester Performance Research is a partner in the newly-funded Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Augmentative and Alternative Communication (the RERC on AAC). KPR’s projects focus on ensuring effective and efficient physical access to AAC for people with severe motor impairments.

Photo of a man using a switch to access a computer. Text says Access Assistant: a new project funded by NIDILRR

Photo of a man using a switch to access a computer. Text says Access Assistant: a new project funded by NIDILRR

KPR is thrilled to be part of the newly-funded RERC on AAC . The RERC is supported by a five-year grant from NIDILRR (the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research in the U.S.). Dr. Janice Light from Penn State University is the Principal Investigator of the RERC, and there’s a good summary of the new RERC on its website.

As a partner in the RERC, KPR will play a major role in two projects, collaborating with the Penn State team and other partners such as Dr. Susan Fager from Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Lincoln, NE. (Thanks to Madonna for the above photo, from their article on AAC during the Covid pandemic.)

The overarching goal across both projects is to support effective and efficient physical access to AAC for people with severe motor impairments. The Access Assistant project focuses on using today’s access methods more effectively, by helping people get the right method for their needs. The Smart Select project is exploring a future access method, that combines brain EEG and muscle EMG signals.

Today’s post will focus on Access Assistant (we’ll get to Smart Select in a later post).

Access Assistant project

In the Access Assistant project, our goal is to improve service delivery in alternative access for individuals with severe motor impairments. We want to leverage existing access techniques so that more people receive effective access methods that meet their needs.

Consider this scenario:

Jim is a farmer in a rural Midwestern state, diagnosed with ALS. He lives 400 miles from an AAC assessment center and needed to rely on his local speech-language pathologist (SLP) to support his communication needs as his disease progressed. Jim’s local SLP had limited experience with AAC technology and struggled to find access solutions for Jim that were accurate and efficient but not extremely fatiguing. In an effort to provide Jim with a sophisticated, high-tech access method, he eventually received an eye-tracking AAC device but struggled to use it successfully. His SLP was frustrated with the lack of support she had to select, implement, and monitor this complicated access method with Jim and often wondered if she had made the right access decision. Jim and his SLP needed support to make appropriate access decisions and ensure his full access to communication.

To provide this support, we plan to develop Access Assistant software. This will be a web-based tool that helps individuals with severe motor impairments and their practitioners identify efficient, accurate, and desired access methods. This builds upon KPR’s existing software tools, such as Compass or Scanning Wizard, but will be a completely new tool.

We hope Access Assistant will be able to support the entire assessment process, including helping teams specify needed features based on user abilities, identify candidate access methods that include those features, and run comparison testing to choose from the candidate methods

Just getting started

The first part of this project is underway, to understand how practitioners are currently conducting alternative access assessments, how end users experience those assessments, and what the opportunities are for improving the situation. We have some ideas already about this, but we want to be open to discovering new possibilities at this early stage. We’ll be interviewing practitioners and end users as a first step.


If you are a practitioner who conducts alternative access assessments, or a person with motor impairments who uses alternative access methods, we’d love to learn from your experiences. If you’re willing to talk with me in a phone/Zoom interview, please let me know!

Many thanks to NIDILRR for continuing to fund the RERC program and giving us this opportunity. This RERC team has been doing amazing work over the years to address the unmet needs of the more than 5 million Americans who cannot rely on speech and/or writing to communicate. It’s been a great privilege to be invited onto this team, and I’m excited to see what we can accomplish together.

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