Alum uses technology to enhance lives of disabled Ohioans
When Ali Rahimi and his family immigrated to the U.S. for a better life, he never dreamed he’d one day return the favor for Ohioans with disabilities.
At age 20, Rahimi ’14 moved with his family from Tehran, Iran, to California. After visiting his cousin, an Ohio State welding engineering doctorate student, in Columbus, Rahimi decided to make Ohio his home.
“That turned out to be a long week,” he said with a laugh. “I’m still here. I fell in love with the campus and the creative energy there.”
The computer science engineer’s dream of pursuing a career in animation and game development changed after he met Patti Ruble, a social worker disabled by polio at age 12, for a social science assignment. The two quickly became friends.
At the time they met, a new health care agency had taken over Ruble’s in-home care and Rahimi saw how it negatively impacted her life.
“The scheduling and quality of staff were poor. Patti was helping other people, but she needed support and was not getting it,” he explained. “That was really bothering me. Being an engineer, I tend to believe we can solve all of the world’s problems. So, I thought it would be simple, ‘I’ll just start an agency and help her and others facing the same dilemmas!’”
And he did. In 2011, while balancing a full-time job and classes, Rahimi started Ohio At Home. The home health agency has since grown from three clients in central Ohio to around 30 across the state. It has 85 employees, who are all Ohio State students.
“We hire pre-health students who want to get patient hours,” Rahimi said. “We train them and they gain meaningful experience. We help them develop professionally and move on to the next level.”
After experiencing the struggles of running an agency, Rahimi created a software platform that coordinates business activities such as scheduling, documentation and collaboration among caregivers, medical professionals, families and connected devices.
By 2015, Ruble was happy with her staff support, but wanted more independence. So Rahimi created a device capable of tracking the location of her wheelchair online and calling for help if needed.
“That was the first thing we built,” Rahimi said. “Then the state of Ohio came to us and said, ‘You know, you can get paid for this device.’ We didn’t know. We were just doing it as a friend.”
Later that year Rahimi launched Medforall, an assistive technology company. It provides business software for agencies as well as remote support and assistive technologies to help individuals with disabilities be independent.
The company also offers Rahimi a more creative outlet for his problem-solving skills.
“I wanted to use my engineering to do something more challenging,” he said. “I knew I was building software that was helping agencies, but it wasn’t as techy as I wanted it to be.”
He’s equally passionate about solving problems for people with disabilities and assuring families that their loved ones are safe today and tomorrow. One example is a custom head-tracker app originally created for Steven, who has a severe physical disability and couldn’t communicate with caregivers to tell them when he was in pain. Users can hold their gaze for a few seconds to select different options, such as choosing a snack, calling for help or controlling assistive devices.
“This was a lifesaver for him,” said Rahimi. “The first time he got the system to respond to him, he laughed for 15 minutes. His cognitive power is just as you and me, it’s just that he can’t communicate verbally.”
Another client, Johnny, was assigned 24 hours of in-person monitoring following an accident, but craved more alone time. After assessing the situation, Medforall installed cameras and fall detection devices in his home enabling him to be alone, but safe, for 16 hours a day.
Medforall currently serves around 60 clients and Rahimi sees tremendous opportunity for growth. He was one of a handful of providers who advised the state on its Technology First initiative, an executive order signed in 2018. It made Ohio the first state to emphasize the importance of technology to support people with disabilities.
Remote support is also more affordable, Rahimi said, costing up to one-half as much as in-person care. More importantly, it allows for limited staff to be sent where they’re needed most.
“Steven had difficulty finding staff to help him move, but Johnny was overstaffed,” he explained. “This is unfortunately so common and the distribution of care is not balanced at all.”
In the future, Rahimi wants to go beyond personal home care to help people with disabilities achieve their goals. “We want to be able to help people get a job, using augmented reality training and coaching. The same technology can be used for someone to go to school and have a remote tutor or coach.”
Rahimi is quick to credit Ohio State’s role in the success of his businesses. Beyond hiring Ohio State students and alumni, he has sponsored several student capstone projects and sees them as an affordable way to develop new projects while also providing a unique learning experience for engineering students.
“We couldn’t do it without Ohio State,” he said. “Engaging Ohio State helped me develop that proof-of-concept. It gave me faith that yes, this is doable. We can do it.”
by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications, firstname.lastname@example.org