Highlights from the 2019 RESNA Conference

The RESNA/RehabWeek 2019 Conference featured 3 packed days of sharing among people in the assistive technology field. Here are a few highlights from my experiences there this year.

RehabWeek 2019 conference held in Toronto June 24-28

RehabWeek 2019 conference held in Toronto June 24-28
This year’s RESNA conference was part of RehabWeek 2019 , involving 6 parallel conferences on assistive technology, rehabilitation robotics, functional electrical stimulation, and other rehabilitation technologies. Held in Toronto, with the main program from June 25-27, RehabWeek had a great diversity of topics and people. Here are some highlights, based on my notes.


Keynote addresses are usually fairly interesting, but for me at least, rarely a true highlight of a conference. However, for whatever reason, this conference had several keynote messages that stuck with me.

The Importance of Diversity

Toronto mayor John Tory was on hand to deliver a few welcoming remarks on the first day. He emphasized that Toronto is the most diverse city in the world, and explained how that is one of the city’s great strengths. I really appreciated this message.

Diversity and inclusion are a large part of what the field of assistive technology is all about: recognizing the inherent worth and dignity in every person, and working together to help every person develop their gifts and share those gifts with the world. When we get this right, everyone benefits.

Mayor Tory’s comments were a refreshing reminder of the positive power of diversity and inclusion. The work we do in AT contributes to a diverse, thriving culture where everyone’s contribution matters and everyone’s voice has value. It’s worth doing.

A drawing of a tree with a quotation by Maya Angelou: In diversity there is beauty, and there is strength.

David Putrino: Who am I helping?

David Putrino directs the Abilities Research Center at Mount Sinai in New York City. He described some cool projects, including a prototype of a wearable device to enhance motor coordination for an individual with Parkinson’s Disease. But the more interesting part of the talk related to the principles he presented for bringing innovation to research and development.

Putrino finds the question of “What is your research question?” to be somewhat boring (I think I’m remembering his words correctly). The answer to this question rarely tells a compelling story. To him, a much more interesting, and more powerful, question is: “Who am I helping?”

This keynote highlighted the value of starting with where you are, in a specific context, with a specific individual problem that needs to be solved. This can bring a more innovative and experimental mindset into the lab, and may generate very different possible solutions. More formal hypotheses and research questions may have a role later in a project, but are generally not the best facilitators of innovation early on.

RESNA Student Design Challenge

The theme of innovation continued into the student design presentations. The RESNA Student Design Challenge (SDC) is an annual competition that showcases creative and innovative assistive technology designs that help people with disabilities function more independently. Team members can be undergraduate or masters-level grad students, and this year’s competition included 39 submissions from around the world.

The 7 finalists presented their projects at the conference, and it was a treat to hear such excellent presentations. These talks were so interesting that it didn’t matter whether a project involved a topic directly in my area of alternative access. And that, by the way, is a great reason to attend the RESNA conference: to get exposure to quality work in a range of assistive technology topic areas, including those that you may not focus on every day.

That said, the main project that drew me to this session was the ATOM: Adaptive tongue operated mouse, by a team at University of Wisconsin-Stout. This team of freshmen (Michael Laffin, Kyle Cleven, and Dexter Rausch) created a hands-free mouse that can be operated by the tongue and mouth, using a device mounted in a retainer. The concept is similar to that described in my recent blog post on a tongue-computer interface, but uses components that are more off-the-shelf to control the mouse cursor. The project also included a thoughtfully designed mounting base intended to allow for completely independent use. The prototype still needs to be trialled with actual users who have quadriplegia, which is a key next step. All in all, though, a very mature project for such a young team.

KPR Presentations

I gave a couple of talks at the conference; these sessions clocked in at 90 minutes each, so I hope I was able to keep things reasonably interesting for that lengthy amount of time. The first was Web Accessibility 101: a DIY starting point for finding and fixing website accessibility problems. This covered a lot of the same material in my blog posts on web accessibility, with practical steps for getting started when you want to evaluate and enhance a website’s accessibility.

The second was Hands-free Mice: what’s available and how to make the ‘right’ choice. This described the various options available for hands-free mice, as well as a systematic process for choosing a solution that best meets a person’s specific needs. I’ve written a series of posts on this topic as well, starting with the first one on considerations for hands-free mice.

You can get the slide decks for both presentations and some related resources at the top of the KPR publications page.

Exhibit Hall

The exhibits had a bit of a different feel from the usual RESNA conference, given the multiple organizations taking part in RehabWeek. This provided a chance to learn about some less familiar concepts, like neurostimulation for recovery after brain injury or stroke, and exoskeletons for enhancing gait, manual dexterity, and other functions.

It was also neat to see GlassOuse exhibiting their hands-free mouse, as well as some switches that they’ve designed. I’ve been hoping to try a GlassOuse myself, and this was my chance. I expected the cursor control to be precise and smooth, and it was. It worked well. The glasses form factor was a mild challenge since I wear glasses myself. It was definitely possible to wear the GlassOuse on top of my glasses, but it felt sort of heavy. That might be something I could adapt to with additional use, but I’m not sure. (For more on hands-free mice, see my previous blog posts on this topic — here’s a link to the first one — or take a look at the conference presentation.)

the GlassOuse assistive device worn like glasses on a user's face


By the way, if you’re not familiar with RESNA, it’s a wonderful organization that provides a professional home for people who work in the field of assistive technology. It includes assistive technology practitioners in a wide range of disciplines and practice areas, as well as researchers, developers, policy professionals, and often a combination of these! In addition to the great content at the annual conference, it’s a great place to get together with others in the field, grow professionally, reconnect with long-time friends, and make new ones. Highly recommend!

If you went to RESNA/RehabWeek 2019, what were some of your highlights? What topics would you like to see at RESNA in the future?

See you at RESNA 2020 back in the D.C. area in Arlington, VA!

4 thoughts on “Highlights from the 2019 RESNA Conference”

    1. Thanks for the comment, Paul — we missed you! Yes, a good project out of UW-Stout – do you know those students? I think they may have been the first place winners, as well, based on this page.

      1. They were, they won first place for the design contest as well as the people’s choice award! I collaborated with their instructor for a few years who assigned a project that inspired their participation in the competition.

        1. Terrific, Meghan – thanks for the info! Would be cool if this team can continue the project and involve some target users in testing and further development.

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