2018 Focus Award Recipients

Faculty - Dr. Bradley Duerstock

Dr. Bradley Duerstock is an Associate Professor of Engineering Practice with appointments in Biomedical Engineering and Industrial Engineering.  He has received multiple nominations over the past couple of years for his promotion of disability accessibility and diversity.  As a professor, Dr. Duerstock has provided outstanding instruction in his graduate course IE 59000 “Assistive Technology Practice.” This course introduces Purdue engineering students to the principles of design, evaluation, and delivery of assistive technology for persons with disabilities. Not only do students learn to develop applications for individuals with special conditions, but, most importantly, Dr. Duerstock inspires them to use their engineering skills and talent to make an important impact for society. He raises awareness in these future engineers to design products that are universally accessible by those with and without disabilities, thus promoting the idea of a more inclusive society.

Further, he provides exemplary leadership through the Purdue Institute for Accessible Science (IAS), which he developed and serves as its inaugural director. His group explores innovative approaches to better integrate engineering strategies or technologies to improve the human condition. One of the many, deeply inspiring initiatives of IAS is an undergraduate research fellowship program that encourages talented students with a physical disability to pursue biomedical science-related careers. Many students have won renowned awards such as the Sigma Xi research poster competition or travel grants for the Rehabilitation Engineering Society National Annual Conference.  IAS was awarded a Focus Award in 2008.

Dr. Duerstock also has a history of designing award-winning technology for individuals with mobility impairments.  Most impressively, his work does not stop at the level of research and education of his students. He has recently started to actively translate inventions from his research lab into the marketplace for assistive technology to make an even bigger impact for people with disabilities. Dr. Duerstock founded Prehensile Technologies, LLC, a Purdue start-up company to commercialize his invention of the RoboDesk™, a robotic mobile device mounting system that attaches to the side of a power wheelchair and enables students with mobile impairments to deploy, position, store, and charge mobile devices with complete independence. This invention was featured on National Public Radio (NPR) and received the third-place award in the Burton D. Morgan Business Plan competition.

Most recently, Dr. Duerstock is developing assistive technology that enables students with visual impairments to identify scientific images depicted on a computer screen. According to a 2014 National Science Foundation publication, no more than 1 percent of people who are visually impaired are involved in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)-based research and receive doctoral degrees. There are a myriad of technologies available to read text (e.g., braille, text-to-speech software, etc.) but nothing to interpret visual information such as diagrams or images, making the interpretation of scientific data incredibly difficult, if not impossible, without assistance.

Along with his colleague, Dr. Juan Wachs in the School of Industrial Engineering, and graduate student, Tim Zhang, Dr. Duerstock has developed new technology that they hope will be used by schools in the future to assist visually impaired students in STEM-based studies. The system uses a haptic device - an interface that gives real-time feedback that the user can touch or physically feel - to allow them to interpret visual information by use of their hands. A sophisticated joystick similar to a home video game controller is connected to a computer that is interfaced with a microscope. When the computer cursor moves across an object on the screen, feedback via vibrations and/or sound cues give the user tactile information about the object's size, shape, texture and color to help them identify the information displayed on the computer screen. The system uses computer vision algorithms to extract important features from an image (such as the position of cell walls). It then virtually reconstructs the image so the user can interact with it via the haptic device. In recent tests, blindfolded participants were able to differentiate between white and red blood cells based on the tactile feedback from the system. This technology has the potential to facilitate study and work in STEM-related fields by talented and visually impaired students.  Dr. Duerstock has distinguished himself as a particularly gifted and passionate faculty member who cares deeply about enhancing the lives of those with disabilities.  

Staff - Mr. John Sheehan

Mr. Sheehan is currently the Accommodations Specialist in the Services for Students with Disabilities Office at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.  IPFW has seen a significant increase in the number of students on the spectrum, and Mr. Sheehan saw a need for programming for these students.  In the fall of 2017, he created the Awetism Student Group.

The students themselves chose the name by combining the words autism and awesome. The idea being that individuals on the autism spectrum have awesome potential and possibilities to make a difference on campus and in their communities. Mr. Sheehan also guided students to the responsibility of advocating for others on the spectrum and to serve as role models to break down the stigma and stereotypes often encountered by those individuals. He is now working with the students to become part of the campus community by collaborating with other groups and organizations.

Awetism Student Group meetings are held biweekly and include three components: an educational activity, a social activity, and roundtable discussion. The social activities are planned to bring the members of the group closer together to work on their communication skills and learn how to engage in appropriate social interaction. Roundtable discussions have included autism depictions in media, autism as a culture, anxiety with social interaction, and medical versus social models of working with individuals on the spectrum. Social activities planned include hosting a movie night, attending a Fort Wayne Tin Caps baseball game, and hosting a game night.

Additionally, Awetism Student Group planned a Neurodiversity Expo which was well-received and attended by many students, faculty, and community members. The League for the Blind/Deaflink, Turnstone Center for Children and Adults with Disabilities, The Autism Society of Indiana, and Partners in Autism all participated in the Neurodiversity Expo to share community resources. Awetism Student Group was interviewed by the local radio station, which then wrote a feature story on the students. Mr. Sheehan is currently organizing the students to volunteer for The Big Event, which is a day of volunteering in the community.

John Sheehan’s experience and work with students on the spectrum has enriched not only the students who are members of the Awetism Student Group, but has made a significant contribution to the Fort Wayne campus and surrounding community.

Student - Ms. Kelley Browne 

Kelly Browne is a junior at Purdue University studying Speech Audiology. As a child, Kelly was influenced by one of her grandfathers who was deaf and blind. She personally experienced partial hearing loss in one ear due to multiple ear infections.

As a freshman in high school, Kelly decided to teach herself American Sign Language (ASL) by utilizing courses on the internet. She was surprised that Purdue doesn’t offer a minor or certificate in ASL. Since her freshman year, she has been working with the Languages & Cultures department to make an ASL minor or certificate available.  She became active in Purdue’s ASL Club in order to raise awareness about ASL and to encourage the development and availability of a minor or certificate in ASL through Purdue University. Currently, she serves as the Secretary of the ASL Club. They have about 50 members in ASL; however, several hundred students are taking undergraduate ASL courses at Purdue. She hopes to continually increase the club’s efforts in growing the size of the club, especially during her senior year.

Kelly speaks enthusiastically about the impact that the ASL Club is making with the Purdue University student population. On the Purdue Day of Giving (April 26, 2017), the club posed for pictures near Purdue landmarks while signing “Day of Giving.” Many curious students stopped to learn more about the ASL Club. The ASL Club was also allowed to sign the Star Spangled Banner at a recent women’s basketball game, and the members hope to earn the privilege of signing the anthem at a men’s basketball game soon. The Club brings in guest entertainers from the deaf community and are looking forward to a visit from a rapper who is deaf, Sean Forbes. Sean will perform Friday, March 30, 2018, at 7 p.m. in Loeb. 

Although there have been many challenges in getting the word out about the ASL Club, Kelly is determined to create effective ways of advertising to potential members and gaining visibility for the group. Kelly is concerned that Purdue University is not considered by prospective deaf students because we are not offering programs that will assist them in being successful on this campus. Indianapolis is the home to the Indiana School for the Deaf. This school provides education to more than 300 deaf students from preschool through high school, and Kelly would like to see these students have the opportunity to further their education at Purdue University.

Organization -  Pi Kappa Phi Fraternity of Purdue University

Every fraternity and sorority has a philanthropy that they undertake each year as part of their mission. However, Pi Kappa Phi Fraternity of Purdue University is the only National Fraternity that has established its own philanthropy as opposed to choosing one already created. The philanthropy that Pi Kappa Phi developed is called “The Ability Experience.”

“The Ability Experience” was founded in 1977 as the national philanthropy of Pi Kappa Phi Fraternity with the purpose of instilling lifelong service in its members and enhancing the quality of life for people with disabilities. Although the organization is still fulfilling the purpose for which it was intended, The Ability Experience has grown into a nationally recognized nonprofit with numerous programs educating undergraduates, alumni and communities about the abilities of people with disabilities.

The Ability Experience’s mission is, “We use shared experiences to support people with disabilities and develop the men of Pi Kappa Phi into servant leaders.” This mission has been fulfilled for more than 35 years. And although the wording of the mission statement may have changed over time, The Ability Experience’s vision to “Create a community, one relationship at a time, where the abilities of all people are recognized and valued,” remains unchanged.

Through programs of all kinds, participants display The Ability Experience’s four core values (abilities, teamwork, empathy and integrity) while serving others. Although the funds raised are invaluable, just as important is an increased awareness of the amazing things people with disabilities can do, as opposed to focusing on what they can’t. Each chapter of Pi Kappa Phi Fraternity chooses an event that is developed by The Ability Experience to raise funds. Pi Kappa Phi at Purdue University does the “Journey of Hope” cycling ride every year to raise these funds. Teams of cyclists and crew are formed to do the Journey of Hope ride. Each cyclist must fundraise $5500, and each crew member must fundraise $2500. As you can see, this is a HUGE fundraiser for this organization. Team size is usually 28 cyclists and 8 crew members. The ride goes from about the second week in June till second week in August traveling from either Seattle, Washington or San Francisco to Washington DC. Purdue Pi Kappa Phi’s annual participation contributes to the approximately $500,000 in funds raised annually by the national organization.