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Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals

Safe Laser fosters independence for severely injured patients

August 31, 2017

Madonna patient Clay Patterson demonstrates the simplicity of the Safe Laser system for Dr. Susan Fager, director of the Communication Center for Excellence. The sophisticated technology allows patients with the most severe physical impairments and limited movement to communicate. 

The Research

Imagine being locked in your body and using only small movements to communicate, such as eye blinks, muscle twitches or slight head movements. This is the harsh reality for many people who have sustained the most severe traumatic brain injury, stroke or other debilitating injury.

The Communication Center of Excellence at Madonna’s Institute for Rehabilitation Science and Engineering focuses on developing technologies and strategies to assist the most severely injured patients with communication. Susan Fager, Ph.D., CCC-SLP,  is the director of the Communication Center
of Excellence.

Dr. Fager’s team identified the need for technology that could harness the small head movements of individuals with severe physical impairments and allow them to use these movements to communicate. Collaborating with engineers at InvoTek, a company that also empowers independence through accessible technology, researchers in the Communication Center of Excellence secured a series of grants through the National Institutes of Health to develop and evaluate the
Safe Laser pointing system. 

This system was designed to be eye-safe so that it can be used in any setting without the risk of eye damage that is associated with standard laser pointers. The innovative technology uses a Bluetooth keyboard that is activated using Invotek’s Safe Laser. Programmable keys have multiple capabilities, including sending standard keyboard commands via USB or Bluetooth, providing digitized speech output or sending TV remote control functions.

Wearing the laser pointer attached to a headset, the user initiates head movements to select letters on a communication board. Even people with minimal movement capabilities are successful. 

Early in his recovery, Madonna patient Clay Patterson gravitated to the Safe Laser. It allowed him to communicate  his needs with the nursing staff, actively participate in 
therapy, have input into his care plan and let his unique personality shine. 

Clay used the Safe Laser to communicate during a therapy outing to his favorite restaurant. Coupled with a tablet, the device enabled Clay to use his head movements to point to letters on an alphabet display. When his message was complete, he made the device speak out loud using synthesized speech. “I want the vanilla ice cream with extra chocolate syrup,” wrote Clay, as the tablet’s voice output relayed his order to the server.

 “Our work across the centers in the Institute for Rehabilitation Science and Engineering is driven by the needs of our patients. In the Communication Center of Excellence, we strive to develop and evaluate technologies for our most severely impaired patients to support participation in meaningful life activities. Clay’s use of the Safe Laser system really exemplifies the patient-centered work underway in the Research Institute at Madonna,” said Dr. Fager.

Related story: Madonna researchers develop communication technology for patients with severe disabilities

Tony Sanson, a research participant, learns the finer points of technology under development in the Communication Center of Excellence, from Dr. Susan Fager, director.

The Communication Center of Excellence focuses on developing technologies and strategies to assist the most severely injured patients with communication in their  daily life interactions.

Communication Center of Excellence

The Communication Center of Excellence, which includes the Harris Family Assistive Technology Lab and the Richard and Eloise Agee Speech Physiology Lab, is dedicated to developing and improving technologies and treatment strategies to reduce the functional limitations of individuals with complex communication disorders. Our collaborative research model includes academic, industry, clinical and patient/family partnerships. 

Research conducted in the Communication Center addresses three primary aims:

1.  Developing technology for use in restorative and compensatory treatment for persons with complex communication disorders.

2.  Documenting and refining best practices in restorative and compensatory treatment to optimize the functional outcomes for persons with complex communication disorders.

3.  Maximizing independence and life participation of individual with severe physical disabilities through meaningful application of technology.

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