Research project helps those with spinal cord injuries

Courtesy of the Theresa Crytzer | Emily Talierco, Dr. Crytzer, Tessa Datte and Alex McElravy are pictured here testing a prototype of their website while Crytzer uses a wheelchair.

Isabella Abbott | Features Editor 

A mix of students and faculty in the media and health sciences departments are work- ing together to research and design a web- based learning program focused on spinal cord injuries.

Their project, WHEEL-LEARN, aims to encourage and assist people with spinal cord injuries and those who are confined to a wheelchair with finding and or making programs to stay healthy.

Sophomore physical therapy student Em- ily Talierco started working on the project in the spring of 2023. She was inspired to research spinal cord injuries after seeing a social media influencer document herself living with the condition.

“She was a cheerleader and was involved in a tumbling accident, so from the neck down she’s paralyzed,” Talierco said. “I al- ways saw her post updates through her dif- ferent treatments, and it’s impressive. Even though she’s quadriplegic, she is still able to have quite a bit of independence.”

Talierco’s work on the program involved creating a Qualtrics survey to gather the participants’ socio-demographics and edu- cate them on different ways they can exer- cise. The research team will be posting an approved flyer to recruit participants locally who have tetraplegia and paraplegia from a spinal cord injury.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, a spi- nal cord injury happens when there’s dam- age to your spinal cord, a bundle of nerve

fibers that allow your brain to communicate with almost everywhere else in your body.

The injury depends on various conditions and can be complete, meaning permanent loss of all abilities below the injury or in- complete, having some abilities remain.

The main objective of their research is ac- cessibility. Senior digital media interaction and integrated marketing communication major Tessa Datte said, “Accessibility is usu- ally a guide in every other design, but the way that we get to highlight accessibility here makes it stand out from other projects.”

Datte is the project design lead and works closely with another student to organize and work on the design process. This work includes building a website and developing multimedia elements for better accessibility.

An issue with some existing programs dealing with accessibility is they combine different spinal cord injuries into similar treatment plans, even though each injury is unique.

“We are designing so that we will help support them and not exhaust their efforts,” Datte said. “We have to accommodate their different patterns of use in everyday life and we don’t want it to be taxing for them.”

While Datte and digital media interaction major Alex McElravy make enhancements to their website, Talierco works in the back end to develop the service the participants will use. This service includes creating a rehab plan to help people with spinal cord injuries participate in more physical activities.

Both departments are working together to create accessible ways for people with

spinal cord injuries to exercise more and to live a better quality of life in general.

One of the aspects of accessibility that Datte and McElravy are working on is mak- ing larger buttons on cell phones and com- puters, something people may overlook.

“A typical button that you would see on a website will usually be 42 to 48 pixels, and oftentimes, people with spinal cord injuries will use a stylus to interact with their devices,” Talierco said. “So to be able to have a larger target to hit buttons is really important.”

Her past study focused on challenges those with mobility issues faced when at- tempting to meet the baseline of the physi- cal activity guidelines for Americans, which is 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physi- cal activity a week. The research included open discussions about barriers to physical activities and ways to start looking into ac- tivities they would enjoy.

This original program development team included Crytzer, a PT, a registered dieti- tian, an exercise physiologist and four peo- ple with spinal cord injuries. Crytzer said it’s essential to include people with disabili- ties on development teams and conduct us- ability testing to determine what works best and is accessible to all.

From this Ph.D. study, her data revealed that 94% of participants increased their base-

Courtesy of the Theresa Crytzer

Emily Talierco, Dr. Crytzer, Tessa Datte and Alex McElravy are pictured here testing a prototype of their website while Crytzer uses a wheelchair.

line to 150 minutes. She hopes to get similar substantial results from WHEEL-LEARN.

She said the project is closely linked to Duquesne’s catholic-spirited mission and vision.

“It’s looking at a population of people who are generally under-served, especially in terms of having access to opportunities for adaptive or accessible physical activity,” Crytzer said. “So, this project is focused on addressing some of those barriers.”

Crytzer is also proud of the student re- searchers and their work.

“It’s been super exciting to be a part of, the students are just incredible, they’re so engaging, interested and so knowledgeable about the technology,” Crytzer said.