Technological innovation and advancement is helping us to re-imagine assistive devices in our everyday lives as new designs challenging previous limitations in amazing ways!
In 2013, a focus group of seven mechanical engineers and one electrical engineer from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, Switzerland teamed up with two industrial designers from Industrial Design at Zurich University of the Arts to create a wheelchair unlike any other. Adopting Beni Winter’s idea of creating a robot that climbed stairs, the team worked together to create a wheelchair that could do the same thing.
Electrically powered and strategically designed, this incredible piece of technology can climb stairs and possesses the ability to balance on two wheels to keep the occupant level at all times. VERY cool! See it for yourself!
Another great example of innovative technology that challenges us to re-imagine the scopes of assistive devices is Patrick Dougherty’s invention known as the “FreeWheel“. Slightly less complicated than the previous example, the FreeWheel is an attachment that makes navigating certain terrains substantially easier in a wheelchair. The foldable, removable wheel attachment significantly expands the user’s scope of movement, allowing them to travel through gravel, over grass, and even persevere through the snowy sidewalks during the winter. The FreeWheel is helping re-define what it means to live an active life in a wheelchair.
These are great innovations however research and innovation costs money, and high price tags can pose a huge obstacle for a lot of people. Which brings us back to the real barrier for people with disabilities ~ society’s inability and unwillingness to provide fully accessible environments for all citizens.
Sara Hendren’s a ROCKSTAR! An artist, writer, activist, and design researcher – Sara creates and writes about adaptive and assistive technologies, prosthetics, inclusive design, and accessible architecture from a critical disability perspective. Her projects include the Accessible Icon Project a grassroots initiative that provides supplies and services to transform the original International Symbol of Access into this active, engaged image –
In an interview with the Atlantic, Sara explains why we need to stop using the terminology ASSISTIVE technology and instead call “adaptive devices” what they are – TECHNOLOGY –
“Scholars and people who are activists for disability rights have spent a lot of energy in the last decades showing that disability is not about the state of a human body; it’s about the built environment, structures, and institutions that make life possible and meaningful—or conversely, impossible and meager—for certain kinds of bodies and minds. In other words, disability studies has worked to transition an understanding of disability from a “medical model” to a “social model.” A social model of disability opens up the discussion to consider how design and technologies might be re-imagined for all kinds of bodies, not “assigned” to those with medicalized conditions.
By returning “assistive technology” to its rightful place as just “technology”—no more, no less—we start to understand that all bodies are getting assistance, all the time. And then design for everyone becomes much more interesting.”
Sara has a blog Abler where she tracks and comments on art, adaptive technologies and prosthetics, the future of human bodies in the built environment, and related ideas. She also runs works on lots of other cool projects including designing ramps for skateboarders and wheelchair users –
See what I mean? ROCKSTAR!
Occupational therapist Christina Stephens designed and built her own lego leg – Cool! You can watch how she does this in her time-lapse video that went viral this past summer –
Personalized prosthetics serve many purposes beyond function – not only can they get people where they need to go, they do so with style, with fun, with flare, and yes with FASHION. Check out the ‘alternative limb project’ where consumers are participants in the design process selecting pieces that either “blend in with the body or stand out as unique pieces of art, reflecting the wearers imagination, personality, and interests”.
Personalized prosthetics, like personalized mobility devices, not only delight the eye, they help to break down social barriers by promoting conversation, admiration and interest.
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“A lot of people think of the wheelchair as a medical instrument,” says Aaron Fatheringham a young man born with spina bifida who ‘tricked out’ his chair to accommodate his passion for extreme sports “I think that’s wrong. You know, why not think of it as something fun?”.
Good design meets people within the context of their lives. It prioritizes the social as well as the physical circumstances and needs of the individual.
The folks at Motivation – an international development charity supporting people with mobility disabilities – get this. With a focus on SURVIVAL, MOBILITY, EMPOWERMENT, and INCLUSION, they design and distribute high-quality, low-cost wheelchairs, tricycles and supportive seating products specifically for use in developing countries.
In North America we spend a lot of time and resources developing mobility devices that function – mechanically – really well. We spend far less time however, considering how well these same devices function within the social and cultural spaces of people’s lives. There is much we can learn from organizations like Motivation.
The recent debate about stroller crowding on the TTC in Toronto highlights ongoing problems with both the TTC AND with US. This is what I see needs doing:
1. Increase the capacity of the system
2. Improve the design of transit vehicles
3. Be nicer!
The TTC is working on the first two – the third is up to us!
An accessible, efficient, and FRIENDLY public transportation system is a sign of a great city. Let’s figure this out TO!