Purdue Profiles: Brad Duerstock

October 4, 2011

Brad Duerstock, associate professor of engineering practice, is working to increase the presence of assistive technology research at Purdue. One step in this process had been the renovation of a lab in the Discovery Learning Research Center to be accessible for students with disabilities. (Purdue photo/ Mark Simons)

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Combining personal experience with a desire to make a change, Brad Duerstock is taking technological accessibility to the next level at Purdue. As associate professor of engineering practice, he is committed to increasing the presence of assistive technology research at the University and hopes to help develop a specific program and area of study for it on campus.

Although Duerstock does not consider himself an expert on "all things disability," he is not shy to seek out others with additional knowledge about assistive technologies (AT). This semester, he and others began the Purdue Assistive Technology group to bring together faculty and staff from different areas of campus to look at AT from various perspectives.

Duerstock's research goes beyond collaborating with faculty, staff and researchers. He also lends his expertise to student teams and local groups to develop accessible technologies for daily use.

Is there a particular experience that has helped facilitate your work with assistive technologies?

Well, there are all of these little details that if I wasn't in a wheelchair, I don't think I would realize. Most buildings have ramps and push buttons for initial entry, but physical access alone isn't enough. Once inside a building, a lot goes into trying to figure out how to become an active participant and not just an observer, especially in a laboratory setting.

Fortunately, I did my graduate work with Richard Borgens at the Center for Paralysis Research where I had the advantage of having the time to figure out what I wanted to do and could do, while working in a lab with few architectural obstacles and very helpful colleagues. When it came to my research studying neuroscience, I couldn't do a lot of the surgeries by myself. So I had to accommodate my research to my physical skills. I ended up going into an area that was more computer-based, 3-D visualization.
The Americans with Disabilities Act mandates physical access, but active participation needs to be the next frontier. We want current and future students to be able to actively study, learn and practice whatever it is they are most interested in.  

What is your plan to make sure active participation becomes the next major focus?

This is one thing we're trying to tackle through the Institute for Accessible Science. We need to address all the different ways people with disabilities can participate in the hands-on work that many scientific disciplines demand. Unfortunately, students with disabilities are often excluded from activity-based learning experiences, and that is a major part of any education, especially science and engineering.

My work with developing the AccessScope really got me centered on the importance of active participation. Through the IAS we're working to develop assistive technologies for labs, which include low-tech solutions like altering switches or knobs and high-tech solutions like robotic arms.

The Institute for Accessible Science is being funded by the Pathfinder Award you received in 2010. Are there any new developments going on with this initiative?

A major initiative we're working on is establishing the IAS Hub, which is a conduit for communicating and networking with students with disabilities who are interested in science. The IAS Hub also allows us to provide online tools for student use. A big project, which involved a lot of different individuals, was to modify the science lab in the Discovery Learning Research Center to be more accessible for those with mobility and visual impairments. Along with these initiatives, next summer we will be hosting science-related internships for students with disabilities. The renovated DLRC lab will be a part of being able to host these students, but we really want researchers to bring the students into their own labs so they can experience being part of a research team.

What is your favorite part of the work you do?

I find it really rewarding when we get a group of people gathered together for a particular purpose, and we're all excited and on the same page. There's this certain energy when we're all working toward a common goal. It's great to get a diverse group of people on board for an accessibility-related project. Even if they don't have personal experiences with disabilities, they realize the significance of a particular issue and that sometimes even broader, more mainstream applications can arise from an accessible solution.

Have there been any memorable moments from your time working at Purdue?

There is no snapshot memory, but I have really enjoyed working with the students and getting the opportunity to be in a mentor-type role for them. I've been involved in senior design projects with engineering students, and many times they pick assistive technology projects. They're always really enthusiastic about it whether it's a project related to ambulation, education or daily living tasks.

It's amazing to see what a group of students can come up with. I'm constantly surprised by their creativity when it comes to problem solving and figuring out solutions.

You're involved in some AT research outside of your work at Purdue. Can you talk about this?

I've built an accessible house, which was an incredible learning experience and instilled a great interest in accessible architectural design. I also have a service dog through ICAN (Indiana Canine Assistance Network), and I've found that it can be difficult at times to interact with him, especially when it comes to rewards. Every dog's motivations are food and play, and for those of us with mobility impairments, it's hard for us to interact with them in those ways. So I became interested in this at a research level and wanted to work toward improving this human-animal interaction. Last spring I worked with a student to develop ideas using assistive technology research with service dogs.

This whole area of assistive technology falls into so many different categories -- daily living, education, transportation, home access, career and even service dogs. It's important to realize that these issues are widespread.

For more information about the Institute for Accessible Science, visit http://iashub.org.