The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 established a broad spectrum of rights for disabled persons in the United States. It provided measures to ensure them equal access to resources, facilities and privileges. It helped strengthen modern society’s notion of inclusivity toward the disadvantaged and differently abled. But policy and legislation can only do so much to address the needs of these individuals, and where it leaves off, technology is now picking up a lot of the slack. (For more on technological advancements in medicine, see Warp Speed to Biotech Utopia: 5 Cool Medical Advancements.)
A robotics company in Japan has teamed up with Tsukuba University to develop the Hybrid Assistive Limb (or HAL); a full robot suit that uses intention-based human-machine interaction to translate human-initiated actions and trigger physical mechanical functions. It is one of many intriguing new developments in robotics in Japan, along with Toyota’s widely popular Human Support Robot that debuted in 2012.
Another impressive attempt at the robotic exoskeleton comes in the form of the ReWalk system. Founded by Israeli entrepreneur, Dr. Amit Goffer, ReWalk uses an elaborate mechanism to give mobility to people who lack or have compromised use of their lower extremities. Goffer is a quadriplegic himself, having suffered an ATV accident in 2001 that left him disabled. He retired from his position at ReWalk as President, CTO and board of directors member in late 2015.
This is the age of the graphic user interface. Much about our lives and our world is conveyed to us through screens and display monitors. This puts the visually impaired at a considerable disadvantage, however there are a variety of ways in which display technology caters to different deficiencies and disabilities.
Color blindness is likely the most common visual impairment (especially among males). A process known as daltonization has been developed to help colorblind individuals see broader ranges of color within digital images. It uses a method similar to the Ishihara test, translating the range of colors into different nuances that fall within the spectrum of perceivable color difference for the colorblind. Spectral Edge is a UK-based image technology company who is utilizing this technique in a technology they’ve developed called Eyetech. And there are also color blindness assistance glasses being developed in the United States by an organization known as EnChroma.
There are innovations in the works to aid those who lack eyesight completely, as well. Haptic technology – which essentially digitizes our sense of touch by letting us "feel" virtual objects using spatially tracked gloves – aims to assist the blind with various methods in which objects in physical or virtual space are translated into some sort of tactile message. In the virtual space, 3-D objects can be felt and interacted with as if they were physical objects, affording the blind a way in which to interact with 3-D graphics and environments. In the real world, haptic technology is being applied toward trying to create warning systems to inform the blind about their proximity to objects in their physical environment.
Dean Kamen was approached by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to improve upon mechanical prosthetics for disabled veterans, focusing on arm/hand coordination and dexterity. Kamen (with his DEKA company) then invented the “Luke” arm; an adaptable prosthetic and robotic arm. Luke is tailorable to arms with various amputation points, and can be sectioned off at the hand, forearm or shoulder – making it highly adaptable.
Along with its almost human dexterity and range of functions, the appendage can even simulate fingertip sensations by sending vibrations to a band that wraps around the subject’s torso. Vibrating in different patterns allows the user to interpret which kind of sensation they are being triggered to feel. DEKA aims to bring the device to the mass market soon.
Google’s autonomous cars have tested very well over the years, with notably few errors and accidents. Additionally, the vast majority of accidents that do occur with autonomous cars are somehow the result of human error. Nevertheless, self-driving cars face significant roadblocks from legislation that aims to regulate the technology.
There is a broad range of advantages that autonomous vehicles would deliver to the public – especially to the disabled. Various disabilities disqualify people from getting driver’s licenses – such as visual impairment, deafness and epilepsy. In a world in which self-driving cars are a safe and practical alternative, people with disabilities would benefit greatly.
Electroencephalograms (EEG) detect brain activity through electrodes and transcribe them to visual data for specialists to analyze. They are often used to survey and detect brain disorders, but researchers in Europe are finding new use for them. Human-machine and human-computer interaction are on the rise, and new research incorporates EEG into systems that can connect disabled persons with hardware for various assistance.
The idea builds upon the somewhat young and loosely defined concept of “shared control,” which aims to enable human mobility through machine interaction. This lends itself to a great deal of research in technology for the differently abled, which has already developed systems in which they can send simple navigation commands to robots through brainwave detection. The commands are very simple (they mostly consist of telling the robots which direction to move in) but foreshadow amazing developments that are in the works for robotic human assistance.
We are in the early stages of a technological revolution in robotics and assisted living. Soon, differently abled persons will be able to enjoy the conveniences that many other people take for granted, while also exploring new realms in human mobility. (For more on the medical industry, see Can Big Data Save Health Care?)