Newswise — KINGSTON, R.I. – July 12, 2023 – A team from the University of Rhode Island, working alongside the Massachusetts Disabled Persons Protection Commission and consultants with intellectual and developmental disabilities, has developed an app that teaches adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities how to recognize abuse and report it to authorities. The free app—R3: Recognize, Report and Respond—was recently made available through Apple and Amazon app stores for smartphones and tablets.

Led by URI computer science professor Krishna Venkatasubramanian, the collaboration included the self-advocacy group Massachusetts Advocates Standing Strong and the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services. The project was funded through a grant from the federal Administration for Community Living, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

People with disabilities are more likely than others to be the victims of many types of abuse. According to 2019 data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, people with disabilities were nearly four times more likely to be victims of violence. Women and men with disabilities are also at greater risk of experiencing sexual violence, according to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.

“We have worked flat out for three years to get this app developed. So, this is an enormous sense of accomplishment,” said Venkatasubramanian. “We’ve done our best to build a robust app for a community that’s been marginalized in so many ways, including lacking good apps designed for them. If it helps one person, I think we have successfully achieved what we wanted to achieve.”

“We’re extremely proud of the R3 app. The app, thoughtfully designed with and for people with disabilities, including people with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities, will help educate adults with disabilities and others about how to recognize, report and respond to abuse,” said Nancy Alterio, executive director of the Disabled Persons Protection Commission. “This tool is greatly needed because it is important to educate everyone about abuse. But it is especially important that we educate persons with disabilities.”

The URI team that developed the app included Tina-Marie Ranalli, Ph.D., an independent researcher with expertise in the humanities and instructional design; Ph.D. student Priyankan Kirupaharan; and undergraduate and graduate students who completed the coding for the app.

“It’s one of the first apps in the world that talks about abuse in this way to this community and actually teaches them,” said Venkatasubramanian, who oversees the Accessible & Socially Aware Technologies Lab at URI. “But more importantly, it was designed with the help of the community. We had co-designers who helped us decide what the app should be about and how it should convey all its information.”

The Massachusetts Advocates Standing Strong provided three consultants—members of the group with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including some who had experienced abuse—who contributed their insights to the project.

“The process from start to finish has been an eye-opening experience. So many people working together for a common goal has been extremely rewarding,” said Deb Lloyd, operations manager for the advocacy group. “It’s been invaluable to have people who walk every day in these shoes giving the URI team firsthand input every step of the way.”

Two of the consultants, Melissa Beauregard and John Mullaly, said they enjoyed working with the URI developers. “Our input benefited the project because our points of view were considered,” said Mullaly. “That helped make the app more efficient.” Beauregard said the finished app is very helpful and descriptive, adding that she and the other consultants were able to “open the mind of the researchers by speaking their mind and giving their opinions.”

Part of the consultants’ contribution was changing the initial focus of the app from reporting to an educational tool, which builds on training programs developed by the protection commission. 

“The process of designing an app that educates users about a sensitive topic but could also be used to independently report abuse was the challenge,” said Venkatasubramanian, who started the project in 2019. “That’s why it took three years for us to design it.”

While only available for a month, the app has already been downloaded more than 60 times. Alterio said the Massachusetts commission plans a formal rollout beginning in July to let people know about the app, working with Massachusetts Advocates Standing Strong, the Department of Developmental Services, and others.

The finished app uses a combination of straightforward text, images, videos, and interactive follow-up activities to teach users to recognize different types of abuse—sexual, verbal, physical, financial and neglect—and teaches them how to report and respond to the abuse. Users can report abuse in multiple ways. On a smartphone, users in Massachusetts can directly call the commission’s 24/7 hotline; on a tablet, users will get the hotline number to make the call from a phone. Users elsewhere can click on a link to the National Adult Protective Services Association website. Also, the app helps all users contact a designated trusted person who can help.

In designing the app, URI developers strived to make it inclusive and accessible to people with a wide range of abilities. “We designed for a community that is very varied with all sorts of vocabulary abilities,” said Ranalli. “On top of that, we’ve made the app very accessible for all ranges of vision, hearing and motor abilities, pushing future development in IDD accessibility.”

For example, the app uses a fifth-grade vocabulary and direct language, avoiding vague or ambiguous words so it can be easily understood, Ranalli said. Designers, based on input from members of the IDD community, also introduced a narration function within the app using  text-to-speech to increase its accessibility.

The designers were cognizant of not upsetting people through the “topics” that help users understand abuse, such as clearly informing users that actors were used in videos showing examples of abuse. The app includes a link for a “feelings check-in” that asks users how they feel and suggests ways to relax. 

The app also gives users numerous choices in how they use it, empowering them to tailor it to their preferences. “We know that the community is often very isolated,” said Ranalli. “They lead highly managed lives. They’re not given a lot of choices in their daily lives. We know from the literature that it’s good to give them choices as much as possible. So, we thought, how can we do this in an app?”

While developing the app, URI developers furthered scholarship on accessible technologies for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, publishing several articles on their research that were co-authored by the consultants who helped with the app. They will present the finished app at the National Adult Protective Services Association annual conference in Boston at the end of August.

“The fact that we went from an idea all the way to an app while doing research and publishing papers is not typical,” Venkatasubramanian said. “A lot of research happens with people with IDD, but it remains in the research phase. Seldom does it become something that goes out there in the hands of people.”