August #WWTO redefines disability

There’s a perception that tech communities can be self-serving. We read the news that startups like Uber have raised another insane amount of money, while what often gets missed are the ways that people are using technology for its truly intended purpose: to improve the quality of life for human beings.

For the August edition of We Are Wearables, founder Tom Emrich focused was on the ways that wearables impact the lives of those living with disability and illness. While each of the packed lineup of speakers talked about how their products work, the larger takeaway from the event was the need to redefine what ‘disability’ means in an age where technology is advancing faster than any time in history.

“State-of-the-art is usually a set of parallel bars and a physical therapist that’s holding your legs.”

The night started with a Skype call from Nathan Harding, CEO and co-founder of Ekso Bionics, a California-based company that’s helping people with lower extremity weakness to walk again with their exoskeleton. In a highly regulated industry that is slow to innovate, Harding’s exoskeleton will expedite the efficiency and accessibility of health care.

“State-of-the-art is usually a set of parallel bars and a physical therapist that’s holding your legs and making sure that you don’t collapse and fall over those parallel bars,” Harding said. “One of the things we can demonstrate is that the dosage can be so much higher. If you look at a highly debilitated stroke patient, they might have to struggle with three clinicians to give a 50 step session. A lot of places won’t even walk a stroke patient like that just because three clinicians are so expensive. With our device you can get that person up with one clinician and get to a 200 or 300 step session quickly.”

The work described by other speakers exemplified the diversity in wearables technology usage for people with disabilities or illnesses. Graeme Moffat, the director of scientific and regulatory affairs at InteraXon, the company behind the Muse headband, talked about how brain health is the defining social challenge of the 21st century and the role of headbands like Muse in fighting it. “The economic cost of Alzheimer’s disease in the United States between now and 2050, is estimated to be $42 trillion dollars,” he said. Moffat also described how Muse could assist in unseen disabilities like depression, as Muse’s ability to assist in meditation could be just as effective in SSRIs for depression or Ritalin for ADHD.

Eric Dolan, co-founder of Neutun Labs, talked about how his wearable software and health care data company empowers people with epilepsy or seizures that struggle with day-to-day maintenance of their illnesses. As smartwatches are commercially available to anyone, the Neutun app takes advantage of the potential for wearables to make healthcare more easily accessible and remove the stigma of carrying a clunky health care device – affording its users a sense of empowerment.

“It’s affordable and we’re giving people the ability to go outside really entrenched software and hardware and really go with stuff that they would actually use and carry around, but we’ll combine that with data sets to find interesting insights,” Dolan said.

Michael Zinn is a product manager at TAPS, a division of TAPPUR. The latter is a company that is developing technology to control your home devices with a tap of your smartwatch. Zinn teamed up with TAPPUR, however, when it was still called DRUMPANTS pitching on Shark Tank, trying to sell technology that allows wearers to play music by tapping their clothing. TAPS uses that same technology for people with limited mobility or an inability to speak to easily trigger customizable voice statements and operate electronics using soft pads worn under the clothing.

“Disability is just a mismatch between the individual and their environment.”
– Matt Ratto

“They can pre-program responses like ‘I need to use the washroom or help me out,” Zinn said. To demonstrate how TAPS enables individual autonomy, Zinn said a popular phrase for individuals without voices was “leave me alone.” The statement was striking in its simplicity, as the ability to claim personal space is integral to autonomy, and often not afforded to people without a voice.

Matt Ratto, associate professor in the faculty of information at the University of Toronto, talked about his non-profit work with 3D Printability, a project that provides 3D printed prosthetics to people in Uganda. 3D Printability expedites a process that is both highly technical in an area with few specialists, costly, and time-consuming in a way that many workers in the area can’t afford if they want to provide for their families.  “Disability is just a mismatch between the individual and their environment,” Ratto said.

While these speakers gave the perspective of those working behind the scenes to empower those with disabilities, Cornelius Quiring provided the perspective of someone that their technology could help. As a three-year-old, Quiring was in a farm accident that caused him to lose muscle development in the right side of his body, and limited his use of his right hand. Quiring has kicked off a personal project called the My Hand Project, creating an exoskeleton for his right hand to challenge the aesthetic perception of assistive devices, which are often functional and not at all fashionable.

Quiring argued that while we look to the ownership of bicycles with a sense of pride, devices like wheelchairs are not regarded in the same way – despite both providing needed mobility. “If we continue to look at both of these from the same perspective, that is, solving the issue of mobility, why is it that we have such completely different solutions for the two of them?” Quiring asked. “I think the issue is that when it comes to the world of disability, we focus too much on the impairment, and creating a solution on the impairment itself, as opposed to creating a device that augments the lifestyle of the user.”

The panel that ended the night included all of the speakers except Harding, but in his place stood Yvonne Felix, an eSight ambassador and funding coordinator and co-founder for the Resight Inclusive Arts. As she has low vision, she uses an eSight device to regain her sight.

During the panel, Felix challenged the notion of what it means to have a ‘disability’, arguing that in a mobile world, everyone needs some sort of device to function. “Humans are becoming bionic; wearable technology is inclusive. From needing Wi-Fi on your phone because you can’t survive without knowing where someone is at their exact location, to needing technology like a pump that reads your blood sugar and gives you insulin,” Felix said.

“Everyone requires something to get through life these days. So the word disability almost even doesn’t exist because everyone is disabled without their own technology and it doesn’t even matter what you need it for.”

Jessica Galang

Jessica Galang

Jessica Galang is BetaKit's News Editor.