Thirumalai, Rimmer awarded five-year $5M grant for federally funded center – News

The new, one-of-a-kind center has a vision of improving the health and function of people with disabilities through encouraging access, increasing participation, and promoting adherence to recreation, exercise and sports.

Written by: Kevin Storr
Media contact: Adam Pope

James Rimmer, Ph.D., and Mohan Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Photography: Chase Tinnon
Researchers in the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Health Professions have received a five-year, $4,625 million federal grant for a new Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Recreational, Sport, and Exercise Technologies for People with Disabilities. This grant is housed in the Department of Health Services Administration.

The center, funded by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research, will be led by Mohan Thirumalai, Ph.D., associate professor of health informatics in the Department of Health Services Administration, and James Rimmer, Ph.D ., director of the UAB National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability, who have collaborated in this field of research for more than 20 years.

The one-of-a-kind center has a vision of improving the health and function of people with disabilities through encouraging access, increasing participation, and promoting adherence to recreation, exercise and sports.

“Only solutions that are holistic and approach the problems at all levels can create meaningful impact,” Thirumalai said. “For that reason, our center has a variety of projects, starting from the intrapersonal level and going all the way up to the policy level, and will benefit everyone: children and adults with disabilities, researchers, rehabilitation/exercise professionals, the fitness industry , the sports equipment industry, the play surface industry, teachers, and caregivers.”

Thirumalai is an engineer focused on creating various technology-driven interventions for underserved populations such as people with disabilities and residents of the Deep South. He serves as the principal investigator on multiple grants funded by NIH and NIDILRR. He also directs the Office of Performance Analytics in the School of Health Professions.

Rimmer is an international leader in health promotion, physical activity and disability, and Thirumalai is a renowned informatics expert. This team recognizes that enabling continued participation in physical activity across the human life span is complex with challenges that are multi-fold for people with disabilities. They understand new engineering technologies will play a critical role in influencing various aspects of life, so their center will focus on using these advancements to promote physical activity for people with disabilities.

“Dr. Thirumalai and I are so appreciative that the largest government funding agency for disability research, NIDILRR, has made a commitment and investment in and related to advancing new and emerging technologies that will increase the health and well-being of more than 50 million Americans with disabilities Rimmer said.

The center will be home to research, development, training and dissemination projects for people with disabilities, including:

  • Designing an adaptive exercise program featuring artificial intelligence-driven evaluation and prediction
  • Developing standards and test methods for playgrounds and fitness equipment/facilities
  • Crafting a crowdsourced approach to promoting physical activity inclusion in schools and for teachers
  • Designing low-cost recreational and competitive sports devices for children
  • Qualitative research to find factors influencing participation in sports and recreation with a focus on the role of engineering technologies

“To accomplish so much in such a variety of projects requires strong leadership and dedicated members who are committed to innovation, discovery and excellence,” said Andrew J. Butler, Ph.D., dean, UAB School of Health Professions. “I could not be happier with the diverse team Mohan and Jim have assembled to expand on their previous groundbreaking work.”

The new Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Recreational, Sport, and Exercise Technologies for People with Disabilities features several internal and external partners from academia, nonprofit and private industry around the world, including the Marnix E. Heersink School of Medicine and School of Engineering at UAB ; Harvard Medical School; SUNY Brockport; Beneficial Designs, Inc., a rehabilitation engineering and design firm based in Nevada; and Motivation International, a global disability charity based in England.

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