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Researchers work out obstacles to exercise for people with disabilities

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James Rimmer, front, with colleagues William Schiller, Michael Scott, Karen Troy and Prashant Banerj
James Rimmer, front, with colleagues William Schiller, Michael Scott, Karen Troy and Prashant Banerjee: designing exercise equipment that’s accessible for everyone.

Photo: Kathryn Marchetti

Some 50 million Americans live with disabilities — a number that grows as the population ages.

Many might enjoy longer and healthier lives if regular exercise were part of their daily routine. But for the vast majority, that is not the case, usually because regular exercise programs simply are not an option.

Enter UIC’s Center on Recreational Technologies and Exercise Physiology for people with disabilities, which just received a $4.75 million federal grant to continue its work for another five years.

“We’ve identified the issues and ways to attack the problems,” said William Schiller, the center’s associate director and clinical assistant professor of disability and human development.

“In our first five years, we’ve made good progress in enhancing technology that improves access to exercise facilities, plus developed a ‘distance exercise’ program and created virtual environments for doing exercise.”

The center’s research and development framework follows a ramp-like path — finding ways to enhance access to exercise facilities, which leads to greater participation by people with disabilities.

That, in turn, promotes adherence to a regular exercise program, which improves health and function of participants and ultimately, a sustainable lifestyle change for the better.

Center projects include showing health club operators how equipment can be easily reconfigured or transformed for use by people with disabilities.

UIC mechanical engineering faculty members Michael Scott and Prashant Banerjee created one example by modifying a commonly used stationary bike that can quickly hitch up a rowing-type mechanism for use by someone in a wheelchair to develop arm and upper body strength.

“We’re trying to help companies understand how to design equipment not only for people with disabilities, but for everyone,” said James Rimmer, professor of disability and human development and the center’s director.

The center’s work is funded by grants from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.

“The federal government is funding this research as a public investment, so companies don’t have to spend a lot on research and development. We just hope the companies listen to us,” Rimmer said.

The center works with the United Kingdom’s Inclusive Fitness Initiative, which has helped fitness centers there and elsewhere in Europe provide exercise equipment for all.

Schiller said that’s a strong economic incentive for manufacturers to build adaptive equipment that can be sold and used worldwide.

“Companies don’t want to build two different lines of product,” he said. “Universal design is just good design. It’s easier for everybody.”

Until universal access to exercise and recreational facilities becomes a reality, information technology can play a role through “virtual” sports played at home using personal exercise equipment and an Internet-connected monitor.

Any number of competitors can participate through the increasingly popular phenomenon known as “massively multiplayer online gaming.”

“We can do that kind of gaming now. You can travel the world by bike or wheelchair and create all sorts of fantasy scenarios,” said Schiller.

“We’d love to have fitness groups, Special Olympics groups and others adapt these games and make them entertaining and enjoyable.

“We’re giving this technology away. Our goal is to get more people with disabilities to become physically active and improve their quality of life.”

Partnering institutions include the University of Colorado at Boulder, University of Pittsburgh, Northwestern University and Beneficial Designs Inc.

Related stories

Study gauges practical effects of ADA on health, daily life (10/26/05)

Encouraging exercise for people with disabilities (11/26/03)

New center's goal: wheelchairs no barrier to workouts (01/15/03)

Disability center Web site offers 'good exercise' for people with disabilities (10/04/00)

Below: graduate students Mike Coughlin, left, and Sina Ghotbi demonstrate the exercise equipment they helped design in the laboratory of mechanical engineering professor Michael Scott.

Photo: Kathryn Marchetti

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