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CEE Receives NSF Grant to Support Independent Mobility in People with Different Physical Abilities

Research Seeks to Empower End-to-End Mobility

CEE Professors Carol Menassa and Vineet Kamat are the lead PIs on a project that is looking at long-term ways to provide new solutions for people who use wheelchairs for mobility in indoor and outdoor built environments, with a goal of improving their independence and reducing health care costs. 

Portrait of Carol Menassa
Carol C. Menassa

The research team has received a $2-million grant from the National Science Foundation Smart and Connected Communities Program to examine ways to improve access from the start of a trip through the end of the transportation process. This study aims to provide end-to-end mobility solutions, highlighting navigation and maneuverability as key aspects of the mobility process. 

“The unique thing about this grant is that it serves people with different physical abilities and helps with end-to-end mobility problems they face on a daily basis,” said Prof. Menassa. “Imagine a scenario where a person needs to go to an outpatient clinic at U-M. They would need to find transportation on their own, getting on and off a bus. Once they arrive, after possibly making changes at transit stations, they need to find their way into the hospital and then through the maze of rooms and corridors to an appointment.” 

The research team is looking at ways to resolve the problems that people might encounter along each step of the way. “The focus of this study is to enable people who rely on wheelchairs for their end-to-end mobility needs to attain independence as they navigate the route and reduce burden on caregivers,” Menassa added. 

Portrait of Vineet Kamat
Vineet R. Kamat

The project is divided into two main research areas: point-A to point-B navigation and maneuverability. “We want to develop a system that allows someone who is using a wheelchair to automatically park at a dedicated location within a room or vehicle, such as a bus,” said Prof. Kamat. “This is to provide ease to the wheelchair user in entering and situating themselves comfortably within a confined space, often under time constraints.”

The study will employ the participatory design process. A cohort of 12 individuals who use wheelchairs will be invited to provide feedback early in the project. Using their input, the researchers will start to develop the technology that can offer the requested assistance.  The initial cohort of individuals will be involved on an ongoing basis. The research team will then conduct laboratory and field testing using the technology in the greater Ann Arbor area in the final phase. 

“We are focusing on enhancing the human habitat experience through this research,” Prof. Kamat said. “Despite improvements to access that the Americans With Disabilities Act has provided, there are still so many places where there is room for improvement. We are striving to increase opportunities for job prospects, opportunities for socialization and to offer a greater chance for people who rely on wheelchairs to fully participate in activities to which they aspire. For example, although we have ramps, and there is compliance with a code, there may be a gap in how people find a way to get to the ramp. We have improved wheelchairs, joysticks and other equipment, but we need to significantly improve the entire mobility experience.”

This is where the concept of end-to-end mobility is highlighted–The focus on enhancing the human habitat experience coupled with how technology and automation may assist. 

Within this context, the main goal is to think about the entire navigation process from start to finish. If someone doesn’t have their own car, they must rely on public transportation, switch buses from stop to stop, and then navigate building to building through mazes of corridors. The navigation itself has layers of complexity–perhaps there is the need to take elevators to the correct floor. There might be icy sidewalks along the way, or crowded buses that may have little room to accommodate a wheelchair. 

“At each seemingly mundane point, we have to ask how we can provide contextual information to assist mobility,” Prof. Kamat said. “Will the next scheduled bus have a place to park the wheelchair, for example?”

Prof. Kamat noted that automation on its own is not always the answer. Technology might help by providing bus information and assistance with the best route to take, including GPS for step-by-step directions that allow people to self-maneuver. 

“We are suggesting automation intervention only where it is wanted and needed,” Prof. Kamat added. “People want to be in control of their mobility as much as possible. They may not want automation all the time when they feel they can navigate or maneuver themselves. Our goal therefore is not to impose automation, but to offer it where it would be welcomed. In situations perceived as helpful, on-demand and adaptive technology is the target. Our goal in this has never been to build a ‘driverless’ wheelchair. Rather, the ability to let users stay in control of their own mobility is the goal,” Prof. Kamat said, noting that this is an epitome of People-First Engineering.

In addition to Prof. Menassa and Kamat, the research team includes Prof. Clive D’Souza from University of Pittsburgh, Prof. Chein-fei Chen from University of Tennessee at Knoxville and Prof. Patrick Carrington from Carnegie Mellon University.

To achieve broad participation in the research among the target communities, the team is partnering with a variety of organizations to help facilitate the studies. The Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living, Veterans Administration–Ann Arbor Health System, Hire A Vet, the City of Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority, UM Logistics, Transportation & Parking, UM School of Nursing, and Michigan Medicine Wheelchair Seating Service are just some of the groups who will provide support for the research. 

“Our objective is to provide direct users who have different physical abilities and have to rely on wheelchairs as much independence and confidence as possible when going about their daily activities, from seeking employment to enjoying social gatherings, without having to rely on others,” said Prof. Menassa. “This will reduce the amount of caregiver time, as well as the costs involved for healthcare and other facilities. There are tangible, direct benefits for users and caregivers, as well as the communities in which they live. We want to allow people to participate more completely and easily in their lives.”


Portrait of Mason Hinawi
Mason Hinawi

Marketing Communications Specialist
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering