Challenging Disability with Electronic Devices

Electronic devices have not only transformed the lifestyle of common people by providing comfort, security, entertainment etc. but have proved boon for person with injuries or physical disabilities...

Electronic devices have not only transformed the lifestyle of common people by providing comfort, security, entertainment etc. but have proved boon for person with injuries or physical disabilities and this type of electronics is generally called assistive electronics. There are many people using assistive electronic devices but Stephen Hawking is an important example with the best use of assistive electronic devices. In 1963, Hawking contracted motor neurone disease and was given two years to live. Hawking suffers from a rare early-onset, slow-progressing form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as motor neuron disease or Lou Gehrig’s disease, that has gradually paralyzed him over the decades.  He communicates using a single cheek muscle attached to a speech-generating device. Yet he went on to Cambridge to become a brilliant researcher and Professorial Fellow at Gonville and Caius College. From 1979 to 2009 he held the post of Lucasian Professor at Cambridge, the chair held by Isaac Newton in 1663. Professor Hawking has over a dozen honorary degrees and was awarded the CBE in 1982. He is a fellow of the Royal Society and a Member of the US National Academy of Science. Stephen Hawking is regarded as one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists since Einstein. He is the former Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge and author of A Brief History of Time which was an international bestseller and his other books for the general reader include the essay collection Black Holes and Baby Universe and The Universe in a Nutshell.

At present, Stephen Hawking is the Dennis Stanton Avery and Sally Tsui Wong-Avery Director of Research at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics and Founder of the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at Cambridge. For his communication, Hawking initially raised his eyebrows to choose letters on a spelling card but in 1986 he received a computer program called the “Equalizer” to help people who also suffered from ALS and had lost ability to speak and write. Hawking could now simply press a switch to select phrases, words or letters from a bank of about 2,500–3,000 that are scanned.  The program was originally run on a desktop computer but then a small computer was attached to the wheelchair. Released from the need to use somebody to interpret his speech, Hawking commented that “I can communicate better now than before I lost my voice”. Hawking gradually lost the use of his hand, and in 2005 he began to control his communication device with movements of his cheek muscles.  With this decline there is a risk of him developing locked-in syndrome, so Hawking is collaborating with researchers on systems that could translate Hawking’s brain patterns or facial expressions into switch activations.

Assistive electronic devices

There are a number of assistive electronic devices or rehabilitation equipment to aid people with injuries or physical disabilities.  Assistive devices are tools, products or types of equipment that help to perform daily tasks and activities by the people with disability, injury or are aged ones. Assistive devices may help to move around, see, communicate, eat, or get dressed/undressed. Assistive devices can help a person to improve his quality of life and maintain a sense of independence. Well designed high quality assistive devices, or daily living aids, that support independent living for the handicapped and disabled, seniors, or those with a medical condition or injury make life easier and safer for the aged and disabled. Such devices promote greater independence by enabling people to perform tasks that they were formerly unable to accomplish, or had great difficulty accomplishing, by providing enhancements to or changed methods of interacting with the technology needed to accomplish such tasks. An assistive device could be a wheelchair, smart cane for blind, hearing aids, Braille Smartphone, smart belt, smart ring or a disability product (like bionic organs) that allows performing daily routine activities. Certain devices, such as eyeglasses and hearing aids obviously require an expert’s assessment, but many assistive devices for the enhancement of daily life such as wheelchairs, walkers, bath seats and grab bars are easily obtainable.

Here are some high-tech assistive electronic devices discussed about how they’re helping those with disabilities lead full and fulfilling lives.

• Assistive devices for mobility/ambulation can also be referred to as ambulatory aids. Ambulatory aids (e.g., canes, crutches, walkers) are used to provide an extension of the upper extremities to help transmit body weight and provide support for the user.
• Combination of electronics and computer devices gives individuals with paralysis, cerebral palsy and stroke victims the ability to participate in spoken communication using only their eyes. Using a sophisticated eye tracking system, users can interact with an on-screen keyboard, allowing them to enter words and phrases, which are then translated into spoken text via the device’s text-to-speech mechanism.
• Smart Cane device is an electronic travel aid which fits on the top fold of the white cane. It serves as an enhancement to white cane and overcomes its limitations by detecting knee above and hanging obstacles. For safe mobility, it is important that such obstacles are detected early. The cane has other uses as a spatial awareness device as it can detect presence/absence of objects in the surroundings. Further, as compared to the white cane, the detection distance is increased from 0.5 meters to 3 meters. It informs about the presence of objects before actually touching the object with the cane and thus helps in preventing unwanted contact. This avoids socially awkward situations like collision with people while walking or unsafe collisions with animals or into trash. SmartCane device uses ultrasonic ranging to detect objects in its path and generates tactile output in the form of different vibratory patterns. These vibrations convey the distance information and thus enable the user to negotiate the obstacles from a safe distance. With simple orientation and training, any visually impaired person who is a regular user of the white cane for mobility can benefit from this device.
• Traveling alone can be a challenge for the visually impaired, whether it’s across the country or down the street. There is always the possibility of taking a wrong turn or getting disoriented in the shuffle of busy pedestrians. That’s where the personal navigation device which is a very small GPS locator designed to be carried on one’s person plays an important role. As the user walks down the street, the device speaks direction and location, so the user always knows where they are and where they’re heading. In addition, the user can plan and store routes and tag locations for later reference. Designed as an affordable GPS accessory (and not a total replacement) to cane or guide-dog travel, the device offers an incredible amount of security, confidence and a wealth of useful information, allowing blind people to travel independently without fear of getting lost or wandering in the wrong direction.
• Speaking of mobility for the blind, engineers are developing a car that can actually be driven by the blind. The aim is to integrate several computer systems, sensors and cameras to observe the environment around the vehicle and provide alternate forms of sensory input, including sound and vibration. This may include seat vibrations of various strengths and locations, pulsing vibration signals in gloves worn by the driver, auditory alerts from a headset and a sort of screen that paints a virtual picture of the surroundings using compressed air. The technology is extremely promising, and even if the vehicle never makes it to street as a legal, safe and affordable car, the sensors and innovations coming out of the project are sure to help in other areas. Not only could this car serve as a means of independent, safe transportation for the visually impaired, but also for any number of individuals with physical and mental handicaps that prevent them from operating a motor vehicle. Whether it’s further study of brain re-mapping and alternate sensory input, the practical implications of better sensors and safety devices which can be applied to all motor vehicles or an all-out safe, practical means of driving blind, this technology excites.
• Group of researchers have developed a highly sophisticated, highly functional prosthetic arm and the results are amazing — a less-than-eight-pound prosthetic arm with such precision and control that it can peel a grape. The arm supports a number of customizable controls and modular components, making it easy to tailor to the wearer’s individual needs, whether he requires only a hand or an entire arm and shoulder socket. Another promising feature of the arm is its sensory feedback system. Hand sensors measure the strength of the hand grip, for instance, and provide feedback to the wearer in the form of vibrations that grow stronger as the strength of the grip increases. This enables the wearer to learn what level of grip strength is and isn’t appropriate for specific tasks, and how much pressure is being applied.
• Development on the cochlear implant first began in the late 1950s, and the first commercial implant device received approval in 1984. However, cochlear implants have come a long way since those early days. Initially, the single-channel implant provided mostly static, while early commercial implants with five channels allowed for some indication of cadence and rhythm. Today’s cochlear implants, however, have more than twenty sound channels, allowing wearers to hear with much better quality. The implant is still far from perfect, with background noise continually being a problem, but the technology has advanced to such a point now that voices can be heard with enough clarity to be readily understood and identified, making verbal communication possible and productive. Cochlear implant is still pretty amazing and only grows more so as the software and hardware continue to improve. More than just a hearing aid, the cochlear implant first picks up sound via a microphone, which then carries the signal to a small computer worn behind the ear, where it is transferred to a digital signal and transmitted to the implant, itself. Once received by the implant, the device then directly stimulates the auditory nerve, providing an entirely new means of auditory sensory input.
• Stairs are nearly everywhere, and navigating them in a traditional wheelchair is impossible. Enlisting the services of others to drag or carry the person with up those stairs is dangerous, inconvenient and often embarrassing. iBot is a self-balancing, stair-climbing wheelchair for the physically disabled. Using self-balancing technology, the iBot aims to change this by giving wheelchair-bound individuals the freedom to navigate any terrain.
• Advancements in wearable technology enable people with disabilities to carry on with normal daily functions. Winkymote is an infrared remote control hidden in makeup that helps quadriplegics change TV channels with blinks. This development has grown to include metalized false eyelashes that can activate various electronic devices and other cosmetics tech products.
• People with epilepsy experience seizures at any time, often without warning. In May 2013, senior engineering students at Rice University in Texas developed the Seizure Monitoring and Response Transducer (SMART) belt to detect signs of seizures. It can also wirelessly send messages to guardians or caretakers. The Smart Belt is meant for ages six and up, and is still in development at the time of this writing.
• There are cell phones with Braille number keys, but what about touchscreen smartphones? Researchers are developing a phone with a screen comprised of a grid of pins. When the user receives a message, the pins form shapes and characters using “Shape Memory Alloy” technology.
• With the Lucy 4 keyboard, people with limited or no use of their hands can operate a computer. The user mounts a battery-operated laser pointer on his glasses or headband, then selects keys on the custom stand-up keyboard. A woman named Janine, who has cerebral palsy, created Lucy, and she even made the website and an introductory video using her invention. The Lucy 4 keyboard allows people with disabilities to compute, while lessening fatigue.
• DynaVox’s EyeMax uses eye-tracking technology for computing, watching television, reading books and speaking for people with limited mobility. The EyeMax’s camera tracks the user’s eye movements, allowing him or her to use the device simply by blinking or gazing.
• The form of home automation called assistive domotics focuses on making it possible for the elderly and disabled to remain at home, safe and comfortable. Home automation is becoming a viable option for the elderly and disabled who would prefer to stay in the comfort of their homes rather than move to a healthcare facility. This field uses much of the same technology and equipment as home automation for security, entertainment, and energy conservation but tailors it towards the elderly and disabled.
• Home robots are very helpful for people who cannot easily clean their homes with traditional equipment. These robots use localized navigation to clean their environments thoroughly.
• The developing bionic devices essentially revolutionize prosthetics, giving the user more control.
• Google Glass is often seen as a gadget for tech-savvy geeks who want to be connected at all times. But Catalin Voss is working to create face-tracking software for the augmented reality glasses, and it’s a natural tool for users with autism and related disorders. The face-tracking engine helps people better recognize and understand others’ facial expressions and, in turn, their emotions.
• A Kerala-based IT company has developed a ‘smart ring’ to control electronic gadgets such as mobile phones, car music systems, home appliances, etc. The ring is worn on one’s finger and can be used to switch on and off electronic gadgets at home and even use a mobile phone without picking up the instrument. The ring can be used a car’s key and enables its users to attend to phone calls or control the music system without taking one’s hands off the steering wheel. It uses smart, low energy technology such as Bluetooth for communication with the connected devices. It can transmit natural gestures as commands to any Bluetooth-connected device such as a smart phone, a music player, a gaming console, a digital interface inside a car or a television set.

Further scope

Assistive Electronics technology is any piece of equipment that is customized with the use of electronics to make life easier for a person who has a disability. The personal computer (PC) can be the backbone of independence for millions of individuals with sensory, physical, and learning disabilities. Many people with disabilities face a variety of challenges in terms of providing computer input, interpreting output and reading documentation. For persons with disabilities, the keyboard, mouse, and monitor are of prime concern, therefore, adaptive hardware and software have been developed to provide alternatives. Screen reader programs are designed to allow even totally blind people to use the computer. They convert the text and icons to speech so one can use a computer without needing to see the monitor. Accessible computer equipment and PC access aids can make it easier for computer users to use word processing programs, surf the Internet, and send email, but they can also help non-computer users handle many non-computer tasks. Any system that aids individuals who are not independent verbal communicators is known as an augmentative communication system. The system can include speech, gestures, sign language, symbols, synthesized speech, dedicated communication aids or microcomputers. Voice recognition and dictation systems are powerful assistive technologies that allow persons with disabilities to control a computer and dictate documents verbally using spoken commands.

A number of companies, as well as individual entrepreneurs, focus on people living with disabilities. They create adaptive devices to help improve their customers’ lives. Legislation (Disabilities Discrimination Act) and social awareness and concern for persons with disabilities are also fostering the development of assistive technology. Known as assistive technology, these gadgets include anything that helps person to complete everyday tasks, and they cover all ranges of complexity. This is a very exciting time for new developments in assistive technology. Development programs are regularly updated so new and previously unseen technology is on-route to improve accessibility for persons with disabilities. With the advent of e-book readers like the Kindle, Sony E-reader, and recently the Nook released by Barnes and Noble, there could be another wave of new methods for people with learning disabilities and other conditions to access e-books and books. While not all of the devices have text-to-speech capability, some of them do, and if it proves useful, other producers of e-book readers will probably follow suit and adopt that utility in the near future. Specialty computer stores often carry items like screen reading software that include screen enlargement features for persons with vision impairments. Voice recognition systems, modified keyboards and computer mice are also available for people with mobility and dexterity limitations. By current estimates, more than 4,000 assistive technologies have been designed for the disabled and seniors. These devices include everything from wheelchairs to a wide assortment of high-tech tools and many companies today are turning their research and development to assistive technologies. To get benefitted by using an assistive device, there is a need to consult a health care professional, such as doctor, pharmacist, or an occupational therapist to find out what is available to suit the requirements. It is important to not let the disability or sensory loss infringe on the lifestyle, especially when tools and devices exist to help and overcome these obstacles.

If you want to share thoughts or feedback then please leave a comment below.