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Wearable tech opens world for people with disabilities


Technology can be a powerful tool for opening up the world to people with disabilities. This is something that Hananeh Esmailbeigi, a clinical associate professor with the Richard and Loan Hill Department of Bioengineering, knows firsthand from her research in wearable devices, and it’s the topic of her talk at this year’s virtual Grace Hopper Celebration.

“My talk is about my lab’s research, which is focused on enabling disabled individuals who do not have control of their arms to gain the ability to communicate with computers and smartphones,” Esmailbeigi said, who was selected among many applicants to be one of the event’s speakers. “It can be difficult for some with a disability to complete a simple swipe on a touchpad.”

Esmailbeigi’s Wearable Technology & Sensory Enhancement Laboratory and her startup HideIt Wearables have been working on developing a wearable oral retainer system that wirelessly interacts with the user’s devices. The wearable features small Bluetooth electronics that the user can manipulate with their tongue. The electronics are sealed in between two layers of thin mouth retainers.

In addition to people who cannot use their arms, Esmailbeigi said surveys have also shown that people who use wheelchairs are interested in having another way of controlling screens or devices because their hands may be occupied when they are commuting, walking their dog, or holding a beverage.

This year’s conference, one of the largest and most renowned events that focus on women’s research and careers in technology, will run virtually from Sept. 29 through Oct. 3. Esmailbeigi said the organizers sent her suitcase full of recording and audio equipment and had her work with a media team to record her presentation. In addition to her pre-recorded talk, she will participate in a chat Q-and-A and a Zoom video session with other conference attendees who want to learn more about her work.

Esmailbeigi added that she is excited for the celebration and has already had a lot of attendees reach out to her because of the title of her talk. She hopes her talk will help illuminate some of the communication difficulties people with disabilities face. They are already three times as likely to have depression, Esmailbeigi said, and the mental difficulties and drastic changes that the COVID-19 pandemic have caused to our everyday lives are only making these issues worse.

“The fact that our lives have transitioned from three dimensions to two dimensions as we are all meeting with screens makes it more important than ever to actually think about the inclusion of those who cannot use these communication methods that we now rely on,” Esmailbeigi said.

Esmailbeigi’s talk, “Wearable Technology to the Rescue: Human Computer Interaction via Oral Assistive-Devices,” is scheduled to run on Oct. 3 from 1:50 p.m. to 2:20 p.m. CDT. It will be available for attendees to watch for two months after that day.