Mississippi State makes driving accessible to those with physical disabilities

Like a rite of passage, most Mississippians head to their local highway patrol station at 16 years old to obtain a driver’s license. That piece of plastic—earned after demonstrating proficiency behind the wheel—opens the doors to independent travel, which is essential in a rural state with sparse public transportation.

Still, for a segment of the population, such as those with certain physical disabilities, learning to drive and taking the licensing test lie out of reach because of limited access to adaptive tools necessary for driving evaluations and training.

Mississippi State researchers are helping to bridge that gap through the development of virtual environments and tools to bring down the barriers to independent driving. As executive director of the new Mississippi Institute on Disabilities, which houses the T.K. Martin Center for Technology and Disability, Kasee Stratton-Gadke said empowering Mississippians with disabilities is a driving force behind her and the center’s work.

“One of the questions we ask in everything we do is, ‘What can we do to help people and advance their lives,’” Stratton-Gadke said of the center that provides comprehensive evaluations and services to remove limitations from its clients’ lives.

Located on MSU’s Starkville campus, the T.K. Martin Center uses assistive technology, training and educational supports to enhance the lives of those affected by disabilities. Evaluating clients for driving potential and training those for which it is an option are among the services provided. Still, Stratton-Gadke said she knew the center could do more.

“Because unique services such as those provided at the T.K. Martin Center are few and far between in rural America, individuals may wait months to receive an appropriate driving evaluation, and even longer to have adequate training,” she said. “Then individuals requiring specialized equipment to drive may wait months for necessary equipment to be installed. It’s just a big lag time.”

After identifying those hurdles, Stratton-Gadke began exploring solutions and research opportunities in virtual reality that could help more people benefit from accessible driving programs. She found the perfect partner in a Mississippi State University research laboratory—the High-Fidelity Virtual Environments Laboratory. Known as Hi5, the lab is led by Adam Jones, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering.

“Our idea is a program that can be customized to a specific disability to allow an individual to practice the scenarios that are most difficult for them. We want to provide a safe and immersive environment but also create a program that won’t let them practice incorrectly. The goal is errorless learning to improve their driving skills.”

~Kasee Stratton-Gadke

Together, they developed a plan for a virtual reality-based solution that could be downloaded onto any commercially available VR headset.

“There is a gap between when you need your vehicle modified for accessibility and when you get certified to drive that vehicle. This can be a problem for people with disabilities, especially considering that there are very few centers in Mississippi for residents to get certified,” Jones said. “We want to use virtual reality as a training tool to help people stay in practice while preparing to get certified and waiting for their vehicle to be modified.”

Stratton-Gadke added, “Our idea is a program that can be customized to a specific disability to allow an individual to practice the scenarios that are most difficult for them. We want to provide a safe and immersive environment but also create a program that won’t let them practice incorrectly. The goal is errorless learning to improve their driving skills.”

Stratton-Gadke said the team is hopeful this project could have a national impact, specifically among the 20% of Americans who live in rural communities. She explained that for an individual with disabilities, the benefits of learning to drive a modified vehicle can go beyond the simple act of driving. It can affect all aspects of an individual’s independence, economic situation and access to health care.

“For example, when a person can drive independently, they can take a job that’s 20 minutes away and pays $20,000 more than what might be available to someone who cannot drive and is limited to jobs they can walk or carpool to,” Stratton-Gadke said. “When you can drive to a higher paying job, that is more often a job you prefer and can create a greater impact on the economy.

“Individuals become more involved in their communities and can generate a greater economic impact—all while advancing independence,” she continued. “There are lots of rolling factors that the ability to drive affects.”

The project is currently funded by a National Science Foundation Convergence Accelerator grant designed to provide quick start-up support for projects with far-reaching possibilities. The grant provided $750,000 for Phase 1 of the project, which includes collaborators from MSU’s Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems and College of Education, as well as the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Service.

“When we saw the request for proposals, I knew it was exactly what we’ve been looking for to support our clients and those with disabilities around the country. It really is just a perfect marriage of what we do in clinical practice and the concerns that we see,” Stratton-Gadke said. “The fact that NSF had a funding opportunity to drive this forward made it perfect.”

While Stratton-Gadke and the T.K. Martin Center provide the clinical experience and expertise in helping those with disabilities, Jones and the Hi5 Laboratory provide the technical skill needed to design and create VR systems.

Part of the Bagley College of Engineering, the Hi5 Lab focuses on extended reality, commonly called XR, and human-centered computing research. It works to improve the fidelity, realism, versatility and comfort of XR technologies by taking a human-centered approach to engineering.

After only six months, that is exactly what the Hi5 Lab accomplished for this project. The lab has a prototype available for practice, and even lab members themselves are impressed with the progress they have made in such a short period of time.

“We have an awesome team, and I am shocked at what we have accomplished in six months,” Jones said. “This team is a real testament to the quality of MSU engineering students.”

With such quick success in Phase 1 of the project, Stratton-Gadke is pursuing funding for Phase 2. The National Science Foundation will choose five of the original 15 teams that received accelerator funding to move on. This next step would include taking the product to market over the next two years with $5 million in grant support.

“We want this to move as quickly as possible because this is impacting people’s lives right now,” Stratton-Gadke said. “I think it’s an exciting project to be a part of. It makes me really proud of our center, the Hi5 Lab and Mississippi State University as a whole.”

By Emily Cambre, Photos by Grace Cockrell