URI professor developing abuse-reporting app to help people with intellectual disabilities

KRISHNA VENKATASUBRAMANIAN, associate professor at the University of Rhode Island, second from left, is creating an app that will help people with intellectual and developmental disabilities report sexual abuse. Also pictured are, from left, graduate students helping in the app's creation, Mary Wishart, Emiton Alves and Tom Howard. / COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF RHODE ISLAND

SOUTH KINGSTOWN – A University of Rhode Island assistant professor is working with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and local organizations in creating an app that will help people with intellectual and developmental disabilities better report sexual abuse.

The university said Monday that Krishna Venkatasubramanian, an associate professor of computer science at the university, began working on the app in 2018 while teaching at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the app is expected to go live by next year. He wanted to develop the app after hearing a 2018 investigative report by National Public Radio where, URI said, the report cited previously unpublished data from the U.S. Department of Justice that people with intellectual disabilities are “seven times more likely to be victims of sexual abuse” than people without such disabilities.

The app, which is being funded via a three-year $380,510 contract with the commonwealth that is part of a grant from the U.S. Health and Human Services Department’s Administration for Community Living program, will offer information to help those with disabilities identify abuse, file reports with ease and “take appropriate steps in its aftermath to stay safe,” URI said.

“Our goal is to build a tool that makes reporting easier, but also teaches folks how to recognize abuse and what they should do,” Venkatasubramanian said in a statement. Venkatasubramanian is also collaborating with the Massachusetts Disabled Persons Protection Commission, the Department of Developmental Services and self-advocacy nonprofit Massachusetts Advocates Standing Strong to create the app, URI said.

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URI said the app, when finished, will have a reporting function that will assist people in reporting abuse to the Massachusetts Disabled Persons Protection Commission via a 24/7 hotline number, which could be preloaded into the app, according to Massachusetts Disabled Persons Protection Commission Executive Director Nancy A. Alterio, or the internet.

“The app will also work with [the commission’s] soon-to-be new web abuse reporting portal,” Alterio said in a statement. “Individual pre-loaded information, such as name and contact information, could auto-fill the abuse reporting form and make it easier to use the portal. Once the report comes in, the cases will proceed through the commission’s usual screening, referral, and/or investigation processes.”

URI said the app, while being designed through the Massachusetts commission, will have universal response functions and its reporting capability could be adapted for use in other states.

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at Bessette@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.

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