Empowering End-to-End Mobility for Wheelchair Users

University of Michigan Civil & Environmental Engineering professors Carol Menassa and Vineet Kamat want to improve independence and reduce health care costs for people who use wheelchairs for mobility. The two professors are the lead PIs on a project that is exploring ways to provide end-to-end mobility solutions, including navigation and maneuverability as key aspects of the mobility process. 

The research team received a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation Smart and Connected Communities Program to determine ways to enable independent mobility, from the start of a trip through navigation and maneuvering to the end of the trip. They recently joined the Michigan Minds podcast to explain the goals of their research and detail some of the unique ways they are including community members in the process. 

Carol Menassa and Vineet Kamat on Michigan Minds

“When we talk about navigation and maneuvering in the end-to-end mobility spectrum, we are interested not only in providing automatic or automated navigation and maneuvering, but giving [wheelchair users] control and providing them with what they need. So basically, looking at their preference, the historical use of the system, and enabling them to navigate themselves as independently as possible to their destination and final location,” Menassa, professor and John L. Tishman CM Faculty Scholar in Civil & Environmental Engineering, explains. 

Their main goal is to improve the overall experience of people with physical disabilities in indoor and outdoor built environments. Using recent innovations and technological advancements in communications and robotics, Kamat says they aim to fundamentally change—and improve—how people who use wheelchairs and other mobility devices interact with the environment. 

The research will be conducted through a participatory design process to ensure what they propose is motivated and directed by individuals who will use it. Through collaborations with community partners, the researchers will recruit a cohort of individuals with physical disabilities who they will work with daily to learn about their experiences with the current mobility systems they are using and understand what changes would allow them to be more independent. They will then improve on technology, or develop new technology, that the cohorts tests and provides feedback on continuously. The final stage will be implementing testing on several bus routes in the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti area to test how it has impacted end-to-end mobility.

“The participatory design process is one of the key components of this work,” says Kamat, John L. Tishman Family Professor of Construction Management and Sustainability. “The participation of the cohort of potential end users is one of the key components that will bring a lot of value to our team.So there are two distinct parts of the process. One would be the technological track, and the other would be the social engagement component—and they’re clearly not independent of each other. They are completely moving in parallel and supporting each other.”

In addition to the user cohort , the researchers will also interview and conduct focus groups with caregivers to understand the effect of having a more user-friendly end-to-end mobility system. 

Menassa describes an example of the process, which starts with someone at home needing to get to a public transportation point, like a bus stop, and then needing to get to the entrance of the building they are visiting, get inside the building, and then to the particular room. Because of the many aspects of the process, indoor and outdoor environments need to be considered in the research.

“There are several portions of the journey that involve both indoor and outdoor environments,” she says, “and yet the person who is on this journey is going through two fundamental functions. They’re either navigating from point A to point B or intermediate points, or within any of these navigation steps, they’re trying to maneuver and get themselves into the best position so that they can take the next steps. So these two fundamental ideas, navigation and maneuvering, can span both indoor and outdoor environments, and that is why we need to treat these two things kind of together or make no assumptions about when we are indoors and when we are outdoors and that the switches are continuous and have to be smooth.” 

Kamat adds that in this project, they define navigating and maneuvering as different components of the journey. Navigation, in the context of the study, is determining a path to go from point A to point B. ‘Maneuvering’ is the small steps taken to situate oneself in a confined space. 

“For example, they may be in a situation where they’re stopped for an elevator and when the elevator door opens there are three or four people already inside,” Kamat says. “So under this circumstance, I have now to make a three-point turn and reverse into that elevator. This is a maneuvering situation under a time and space constraint. Similarly, maybe a bus comes and stops at my stop, the ramp comes down, and I know that there are people waiting. I want to get along with my journey; the others want to get along with their journey. Yet, I have to now climb that ramp and very quickly spin the wheelchair around and park it in a given situation within the bus. So this is another maneuvering situation. Once I get off a bus, I now have to figure out the turn-by-turn directions to get from the bus stop to the door of a building. That is more of a navigation situation.” 

Mobility is integral in many ways—education, workforce, socializing—and when it is lacking, it is detrimental not only to the individuals with physical disabilities, but to society as a whole. As technology becomes more accessible, Kamat says the time is now to identify ways to make communities more inclusive and accessible. 

“Mobility is a key determinant to an individual’s prospects, be it in education, be it in finding good jobs, be it in their ability to socialize. Therefore, lack of mobility is not only detrimental to the prospects of the individual who is affected, but also to society because then the society is deprived of all the contributions that such individuals could make.”

Vineet Kamat, PhD

Menassa and Kamat hope that the outcomes of this research help set the stage for other researchers to build on the results and continue to make spaces more accessible for everyone. In addition to the cohort of users, caregivers, and community partners, Menassa says involving a diverse set of undergraduate and graduate researchers will also be an important component. 

The inclusion of participants and stakeholders in the research process is something that is encouraged at Michigan Engineering through the focus placed on people-first engineering, Kamat says, which encourages researchers to thoroughly engage with potential end users because that will help lead to better outcomes and a larger impact. 

“I think as the culture in research—and the emphasis on including stakeholders and participants in the research process—continues to improve for the better, we are also already learning and experiencing that this results in us defining the research objectives much better,” Kamat says. 

“And potentially, the end product will also have a much higher chance of being useful and being actually deployed for its intended use. I think this team approach is something that is quite unique to this project in terms of the breadth of stakeholders and the duration for which they’re going to stay with our project. And that is something we are quite excited about.”