health – differently abled

From basic adaptions of everyday tools to new complex mobile apps, inventions over the past 100 years have given people with disabilities an enhanced sense of independence and confidence to face everyday obstacles in a world that is seemingly designed for people without disabilities. Engineers and inventors have been faced with the challenge of making society a place that is accessible to everyone.

Apps For Blind and Visually Impaired

Many specially designed apps have been breakthrough solutions to blind and visually impaired travelers in navigating cities and executing everyday errands. Whether they have an iPhone or Android, there is an app that will help blind and visually impaired people be tourists in new cities or just face new and challenging tasks.

If you have an Android, WalkyTalky is a great option for you. This navigation and mapping app gives live audio feedback to the user and automatically vibrates when it senses the user heading in the wrong direction. Another incredibly helpful option, whether you have an iPhone or Android, is an app created by a Copenhagen based non-profit in 2015, called Be My Eyes. This relatively new app allows blind and visually impaired people to connect with sighted volunteers through live video in order to receive assistance with anything from navigating the train station to reading the mail.

Stair-Climbing Wheel Chair

In 1959, the National Inventors Council announced that it was going to award $5,000 for the design of a wheelchair that could climb stairs. The contest had specific parameters and specifications, and although a couple entries came close, nobody entered a completely feasible design. In 1962, a mechanical engineer named Ernesto Blanco came up with a stair-climbing wheelchair design that is still the leading proposal to this day. He believed in his design so much that he built a one-fourth model to prove its ability. Ernesto Blanco went on to teach mechanical design at MIT while also spreading his ideas of social justice for the disabled community through innovative engineering solutions.

The challenge of this wheelchair is building it at an affordable cost to consumers. Since 1962, many intellectual minds, who were inspired by Blanco’s social justice aspirations, have tried and failed to resolve this challenge. We still have yet to come up with a viable and economical solution to the stair-climbing problem. For example, in 2003 the inventor of the Segway, Dean Kamen, introduced the iBot, a motorized wheelchair that could successfully climb stairs, but production was halted when insurance companies refused to expand reimbursement for the costly machine. I guess we will have to wait a little longer for Blanco’s vision to become a reality.

ASL Translating Gloves

One invention that has been introduced multiple times throughout the recent history is gloves that “translate’’ hand and finger movements into text and audio. Time and time again, groups have developed wearable gloves that are attached to electrodes, which in turn sense basic movement such as American Sign Language (ASL) and transform the motion into audio or text on a screen. The first design that intended to make communication between the deaf and the hearing easier, was presented in 1988 by Stanford researchers and was introduced as the “talking glove”. More recently, in 2016,a student group from the University of Washington won a $10,000 prize from MIT for their invention of SignAloud gloves. Although these inventions were proposed to help aid the deaf and hearing impaired, the deaf community did not see the invention as much of a service. Lance Forshay, UW’s ASL program director, gathered input from other deaf faculty to explain to the inventors that their invention actually aided the hearing more than it aided the deaf. They pointed out that the technology only focuses on the physical hand motions attributed to ASL and ignores other extremely important factors such as facial expression and torso orientation.

 

While this technology is one step in the right direction for easier communication, it is also an example of an invention that missed the mark on helping those with disabilities. If we first don’t fully understand the problem, we will fail to create a sustainable solution. Problems can be solved through communication with the populations who face these hardships every day. We have to meet people at their current abilities in order to effectively solve the problems that are at the core of making society accessible to everyone.

While this technology is one step in the right direction for easier communication, it is also an example of an invention that missed the mark on helping those with disabilities. If we first don’t fully understand the problem, we will fail to create a sustainable solution. Problems can be solved through communication with the populations who face these hardships every day. We have to meet people at their current abilities in order to effectively solve the problems that are at the core of making society accessible to everyone.