Having recently joined ICS as a rehab engineer, I spend my time using a range of low- and high-tech solutions to help our members do more of the things that are important to them and that help them live independently. This involves creating personalized assistive technology – everything from simple adaptations to fully custom assistive devices. It might mean adapting something so that it can be controlled by a person’s voice, their eye movements, or signals sent from their central nervous system to their muscles. We might use anything from fancy fiber-optic sensors to a member’s smartphone, or different kinds of adaptive switches – but simple mechanical adaptations can also accomplish a lot.
Independence at home
Being able to function in your own home is obviously a key to independent living. A while back I realized that refrigerator doors, which can require a significant amount of strength to open, can pose a real problem for some people with disabilities, as well as for older people with decreased body strength or balance problems. I decided to see if I could create a motorized door opener that was easy to use and simple to install. Here is a video showing two versions I made, using mostly parts I already had on hand.
One person I worked with was unable to use the air conditioner in their home. As you can see in these photos, the control panel for this air conditioner is recessed, and the buttons are small and quite flush with the panel surface. The unit did not come with a remote control; it can only be used by pressing the buttons on the control panel. There are a number of mobility impairments that make this type of control panel either extremely difficult or impossible to use.
The person I was trying to help could see the control panel but was unable to push the buttons. Because they didn’t own the air conditioner, direct modifications to the electronics were not an option, nor was finding a way to move the control panel up out of the unit. To get around this I set up a mechanical button pusher, controlled by a remote, to make the unit accessible. Here’s a video of this solution in action.
Lots of technology lends itself to adaptation
The constant question we face is how to bridge the gap between a member’s ability and what they want to do. Sometimes an off the shelf product exists to meet the member’s needs. In other cases, some simple rewiring can make something accessible. When these are not options, or when an off the shelf solution is too expensive or not customizable enough, that’s where I can really help – and where I get to do my most interesting work.
Last year I created a system that allows a person with very limited mobility to use eye movements to control a motorized wheelchair and a motorized grabber that can pick up and move small objects. This system also allows eye movements to work an environmental control unit that turns on and off household objects like lamps and fans. You can see a video of me demonstrating the system with these devices here. While these were quick experiments needing more refinement, they demonstrate how eye or voice controlled solutions can be set up quickly and inexpensively, dramatically increasing a person’s independence.
What I find in my work is that, depending on someone’s needs, conditions, and what they want to do, a solution usually presents itself: standard remote control devices can be replaced with ones that are easier to use; switches on devices that are difficult to manipulate can be adapted to make them usable or replaced with a different type of mechanism.
For example, many remote control devices used to operate wheelchairs, as well as audio, video or other electronic equipment, use infrared light signals that transmit a different code for each function of a TV, DVD, wheelchair, lamp, game or other device. If a remote control isn’t practical for someone with limited use of his or her hands, we can swap in another object that transmits those same signals but that the member is able to use. Something designed to be controlled by hand can be altered for use by someone who can instead move a foot, head, arm, mouth or another other part of their body.
Sometimes altering the device or its wiring is not an option, such as with the air-conditioner described above. In these cases we look for ways to bridge the gap between the person and the object they want to use with another device. Often this can be done using universal button pushers, which are very adaptable, can control anything that uses buttons, and can themselves be controlled however desired: by voice, eye movement, switch, or smartphone, for example. Radios, a hospital bed, a heating and air conditioner unit – really anything that has buttons – can be adapted using this tool.
Through my experiments, I’ve learned that all kinds of things are possible with a little bit of effort. I’ve always been interested in taking things apart and seeing what else I could get them to do. My job at ICS allows me to put my skills to good use.