Patient visits to the Assistive Technology Partners lab at CU Denver.

We’re in this together: Building ability and access through technology

January 17, 2020

This story originally published at giving.cu.edu/innovation in November 2019. 

In the fall 2019, 5-year-old Jade Ruiz was starting kindergarten soon. It was time, her mother Brenda said, to put her in the driver’s seat—literally. 

Her mother explains that when Jade was 3, she experienced a sudden loss of motor skills and muscle function and was diagnosed with a rare genetic condition that affects her nervous system. They’ve been using a stroller and manual wheelchair to get Jade around ever since.

So they turned to the Center for Inclusive Design and Engineering (CIDE) at CU Denver for help  customizing a motorized wheelchair for the giggly little girl who loves princesses and playing with friends. 

“The University of Colorado, having this program in place, is incredible,” says Brenda Ruiz. “It’s just been amazing to bring Jade here and work with these phenomenal staff members here, and they are so good to us…it’s just such a benefit to our family.”

A disability can happen to someone due to birth, injury, disease or aging. In fact, one in four adults—61 million in the United States alone—have a disability that impacts major life activities, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“At some point in their lives, most people will either have a disability or know someone who has a one,” says CIDE Executive Director Cathy Bodine, who is internationally recognized for her work in assistive technology. 

Previously known as Assistive Technology Partners (ATP), CIDE uses innovative technology and engineering to help those living with disabilities, including sensory, cognitive, mobility and communication needs, access the world around them. The center has grown from a single project in 1989 to since providing assistive technology information and services to more than 3 million people around the world, Bodine says.

The center has thrived, thanks to a philanthropic partnership has with Colorado’s construction industry. For more than a decade, a group led by CU alumnus Bill Caile and his wife, Sara, has supported the center through an annual event called Déjà Vu Rendezvous, attracting a kind of “who’s who” in the Colorado construction industry.

With both financial and in-kind contributions from this generous group—as well as support from both CU Denver’s College of Engineering, Design and Computing and the dual-campus Department of Bioengineering shared between CU Denver and CU Anschutz— the program moved into a renovated space on campus in 2016 and was recently designated a center in late 2019.

Since 2008, efforts by Caile and his industry partners have raised over $2 million for CIDE, including funding for an endowed professorship, clinical support, a bioengineering endowment and a scholarship program. Endowed professorships are crucial to improving CU’s intellectual might, and innovative academic leaders attract the best and brightest students and create opportunities for brilliant ideas to launch, grow and flourish. 

The goal is to help people feel more confident and independent in all parts of their life through technology. 

Says Bodine: “To me, it’s all about the human who needs or wants to accomplish a task, but they need to mediate that through the use of technology because they can’t do it for whatever reason on their own. To me, it augments human behavior or human activity.”

Read the full-length version of this story, including interviews with CU students working on technology to help people with disabilities thrive, as well as CIDE clients like Jade Ruiz and her mother Brenda, in an online multimedia experience at giving.cu.edu/innovation.