New technology helps people with disabilities navigate grocery shopping

An individual uses a Video Visual Scene Displays app developed by the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Augmentative and Alternative Communication to aid him while grocery shopping. Credit: Photo providedAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Grocery shopping is a life skill that many people take for granted, but it is an essential part of living independently in the community.

A group of researchers in the Penn State College of Education are exploring how different types of technology can help individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) improve their shopping skills in community-based settings.

Technological supports for participation and communication in everyday life have been investigated at Penn State through the work of the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Augmentative and Alternative Communication (RERC on AAC). The RERC on AAC is a national center of researchers and engineers who conceptualize, develop and research new technologies to support communication.

An RERC on AAC team led by David McNaughton, professor of education in the Department of Educational Psychology, Counseling, and Special Education (EPCSE) and Janice Light, the Hintz Family Endowed Chair on Children’s Communicative Competence at Penn State, researched a new approach to supporting communication, called Video Visual Scene Displays (VSDs). In this approach, a video is made of the target skills including picking out items and paying for purchases.

Then, using a special Video VSD app, communication supports can be embedded in the video at key junctures. The Video VSD approach is available as part of commercially available AAC apps and can be used on a variety of tablet technologies such as iPads and Samsung tablets.

“Video VSDs are an exciting new tool to increase participation and communication in community-based settings for individuals with disabilities,” McNaughton said. “In the coming years we will investigate how to further develop and support widespread use of these powerful assistive technologies.”

In the context of grocery shopping, the Video VSD intervention works by walking the individual through the shopping process using a clear video demonstration of the needed skills. The technology is especially attuned to supporting communication while grocery shopping, McNaughton said, which is a crucial part of ensuring a positive shopping experience.

Sojung Jung and Ciara Ousley, doctoral candidates in EPCSE, recently completed a study related to this work that examined the use of the Video VSD app by an adult with Down syndrome while shopping in a grocery store. Jung and McNaughton said they are excited about the results they have seen in the grocery store and other settings.

“I’m interested in how assistive technology can support participation and communication in community activities for individuals with disabilities,” said Jung. “And grocery shopping is a critically important life skill for our self-sufficiency, nutrition and health.”

Last Updated April 20, 2021