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A beta version of ASK Messaging is being used by students at The Bridge School, an organization that educates children with severe speech and physical impairments.A young woman with cerebral palsy walks into a Starbucks and, despite her compromised motor skills and speech difficulties, uses an iPad to do what she’s never done before – she orders a cup of coffee by herself. That’s a scene that a Michigan Engineering student team hopes to see in the very near future when it completes testing on a special iPad app.

Their project started unexpectedly when a representative from C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital stopped into a software-engineering class and described some of the patients – all children, many with special needs. The visit led the students to ask themselves, “What can we do to help these children – and all people who have problems doing what the rest of us take for granted?”

Chelsea LeBlanc, a computer science and engineering student who became the team leader, said that asking the question prompted them to take a tour of Children’s Hospital and find out what kinds of challenges the patients faced.

“We had no idea what to expect and we didn’t know what we were looking for,” LeBlanc said. “But we struck up a conversation with one of the physical therapists who works with a group of ten children with traumatic brain injuries, cerebral palsy and other conditions that affect fine motor control. She pointed out that people with impaired motor movements have a hard time targeting small areas on touch-sensitive screens on iPads, or the small buttons on smart phones. There are customized input systems that these people can use to manipulate home computers, but the systems don’t transfer well to mobile devices. We knew then and there that we’d found a meaningful project to work on.”

They recruited rehabilitation engineers from the hospital to be part of the team. Together, they decided to focus their project on those who had speech disabilities and motor movements compromised by cerebral palsy. “One of the little boys we met was the most tech-savvy user I’ve ever talked to. He was giving us suggestions for how we might use the code this way or use iPad that way – right now in order to use those applications they literally have to have a parent or a guardian or the physical therapist type the letters and numbers for them.”

An app that helps Cerebral Palsy patientsThe meeting turned out to be time well spent. The boy’s suggestions sparked some brainstorming that led to the team’s solution: to create an app that converted the entire screen into one large button so that users could manipulate text without having to target specific areas with a finger.

When a user wants to begin, she simply touches the screen. A menu with four buttons appears with four options: compose text, text inbox, compose email, and email inbox. These areas light up one-at-a-time. To select an option, the user simply touches anywhere on the screen when an area lights up. A keyboard appears with letters arranged by frequency of use instead of in the normal QWERTY order. Text above the keyboard indicates, row by row, which one is active. A touch of the screen selects a row that the user wants. Then a scanner moves across each row, lighting up characters one at a time. The user touches anywhere on the screen to select a character. If the user doesn’t touch the screen in time, the scanner loops around and starts again.

The app, now known as ASK Messaging (ASK is assistive scanning keyboard), has gotten a lot of response and promises to make life better for anyone with motor-movement challenges. It turns out that the app has rocked LeBlanc’s world, too.

She said that at the beginning of college she “didn’t have a whole lot of ideas about what to expect. Especially not coming from an engineering background, I expected it to be very heavily mathematically based and a lot of class work. I didn’t think there would be very much communication with other people except through spec documents and very formalized things. But I think for me it’s turned out to be a big surprise that engineering is so much about talking to people and figuring out what needs to be done and what can be done, especially for very socially relevant causes like this one. I realized that you can make a difference in people’s lives – individual lives. This entire experience – building this app and seeing what engineering can do to help people – has turned out to be huge surprise and very exciting.”

Dave Chesney, a lecturer in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, put this project in motion. “I think that as a teacher, part of my goal is to provide opportunities for students to apply their education to some social good,” he said. “Teach well, do good, inspire greatness.” This project has seen all three.

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iPad App for Cerebral Palsy Patients Developed by Michigan Engineering Students

Wednesday, December 5, 2012 10:06 a.m.


A University of Michigan team of engineering students and rehabilitation engineers is building an app to help people whose impaired motor movements make it hard to manipulate touch-sensitive screens or press the small buttons on iPads and other mobile devices.

A University of Michigan team of engineering students and rehabilitation engineers is building an app to help people whose impaired motor movements make it hard to manipulate touch-sensitive screens or press the small buttons on iPads and other mobile devices.

Article topics: ASK Messaging App

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