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MSU scholars to improve workplace disability inclusion through $2M grant

By Lauren Knapp, Eric Lacy, Chelsea Stein
Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Scholars from three Michigan State University colleges are leading a $2 million grant to improve the inclusion of people with disabilities in the workforce. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the four-year grant fuels research to assess and augment human abilities and redesign workflow to increase the workforce participation of people with physical and mental disabilities.

The project could improve working conditions and outputs for millions. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Statistics, the employment rate for people with disabilities stands at a mere 21.3%, in contrast to 65.4% for people without disabilities.

“There is great excitement about the project and its potential outcomes,” said principal investigator Ranjan Mukherjee, a professor in the College of Engineering and Martin J. VanDerPloeg Endowed Chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “To create sustainable and economically viable solutions in the disability employment environment, we need translational science at the intersection of multiple disciplines.”

The project will initially focus on a real-world apparel production-line environment by closely working with partners Peckham Inc. and SourceAmerica. Their work will help people with physical and mental disabilities gain sustainable employment. Solutions the scholars develop in this project have the potential to scale to other work contexts.

Businesses can be a great source of good if we are able to pursue multidisciplinary science with industry stakeholders, as we do in this project. The project also lines up with MSU’s mission of pursuing economic development activities that are innovative, research-driven and lead to a better quality of life for individuals and communities, at home and around the world.

The scholars will employ a human-centric, abilities-first approach to the work environment, focusing on a person’s abilities rather than their disabilities. For example, a robot could be added to a workstation to aid a worker in tasks like manipulating fabric as it is being sewed. The scholars will examine how robotics, augmented reality and reimagined workflows could improve the workplace.

“This approach is truly a transdisciplinary challenge,” said Rajiv Ranganathan, co-principal investigator and an associate professor in the College of Education. “Each one of the scholars brings something important to the table to make this work.”

Sriram Narayanan headshot

Sriram Narayanan, Eli Broad Professor of Supply Chain Management

Other grant co-principal investigators include Charles Owen, associate professor from the College of Engineering, Hung Jen Kuo, assistant professor from the College of Education, and Sriram Narayanan, Eli Broad Professor of Supply Chain Management from the Broad College of Business.

This project expands on an ongoing partnership with Peckham, a Lansing-based nonprofit known for providing job training opportunities for people with disabilities, in which Narayanan and Kuo are developing process- and psychosocial solutions to employ people with disabilities. Working with external partners facilitates real-world translation of the research, allowing the team of experts to learn more about bringing multiple vantage points to solve a larger social challenge.

Mukherjee, Ranganathan and Owen bring expertise in assistive technology across domains of robotics and augmented reality. Narayanan brings expertise of production process analysis and workflow augmentation. And Kuo brings expertise of vocational rehabilitation and analyzing psychosocial challenges of individuals with disabilities. Collectively, the team brings a holistic solution-oriented approach to the grant.

“We’re looking at this from many angles,” Kuo said. “The demands of the workforce require us to expand opportunities for people with disabilities while also finding a sustainable solution that can be implemented by various companies.”

The collaborative, transdisciplinary effort will focus on impact across the workplace. For individual people, it could improve employment opportunities and empowerment. For employers, it increases workforce diversity and productivity. For society at large, the scholars say, the work could “lead to the inclusion of a significant but untapped workforce and thereby lead to increased global competitiveness.”

“Businesses can be a great source of good if we are able to pursue multidisciplinary science with industry stakeholders, as we do in this project,” Narayanan said. “The project also lines up with MSU’s mission of pursuing economic development activities that are innovative, research-driven and lead to a better quality of life for individuals and communities, at home and around the world.”

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