Opinion

It’s not science fiction, honest. These innovations are here already

Bríd Hehir celebrates the health benefits of space-age technology and similar advances

Human ingenuity and modern technology can make a huge difference to the lives of children and adults with disabilities. Innovations help them achieve what once would have been considered impossible and viewed more within the realm of science fiction than reality. But health and social care users are increasingly benefiting from them.

Necessity is the mother of invention and some innovations are so simple it’s understandable that people have said ‘why did nobody think of this before?’ Others are the consequence of years of scientific collaboration and technological advances. They have enthused and inspired me because they are potentially so liberating.

I worked for a number of years as a health visitor for children with special needs and knew many children with motor impairments. In order to achieve degrees of mobility, they relied on assistive technologies.

A recent, simple yet revolutionary invention, an Upsee, conceived of by an Israeli mother, is set to change many children’s lives for the better. It allows infants and small children to stand and walk with the help of an adult. The Upsee has three parts – a hip belt, a child harness and attachment sandals. With the Upsee attached to the adult’s body, the child and adult take steps together.

It’s now being manufactured in Northern Ireland, where the Firefly firm’s clinical research manager said: ‘It has been humbling to see the progress and happiness the Upsee is creating; watching children do simple things for the first time such as kicking a ball or playing with a sibling is wonderful for everyone involved, but especially the families.’

More sophisticated developments from Robots for Humanity are also creating waves and revolutionising lives. These are the brainchild of Henry Evans, a Silicon Valley employee, who developed a disability that rendered him wheelchair dependent. Once he’d come to terms with his disability, he decided to work on technology that would make the world more accessible to severely disabled people and offer them new freedoms and experiences.

The result – body surrogate robots and drones – do seem like something out of science fiction. Robots that move, speak and perform household tasks and mimic human movement in order to perform personal tasks like shaving, driven just by eye movements, are continually being refined by scientists.

And drones, like a miniature flying saucer, fitted with a camera, take people remotely around the world. They allow them to ‘fly’, ‘attend’ events and ‘travel’ abroad – to participate in mainstream society.

Henry Evans, through using a drone, has visited international museums, viewed and learned about exhibits and interacted with visitors. He could literally see and hear everything around him as though he were really there.

Stuart Turner, a quadriplegic from Manchester, is another fortunate user of this technology. Using a Parrot AR drone, he ‘flew’ 3,000 miles from his home via a web browser, to Brown University in the United States.

Another software invention that is causing a stir will allow wheelchair users with conditions such as multiple sclerosis or spinal cord injury to steer a wheelchair by moving their eyes without having to stare at controls.

Aldo Faisal, a student at Imperial College, London, recognised that despite the variety of technologies which allow people to direct the movement of a wheelchair, there is considerable delay between the movement of the eyes and the chair and the user can't look around while manipulating the wheelchair.

So he developed a cheap gadget that can be attached to a laptop computer. The finished system involves two cameras, one trained on each eye. They observe eye movements and pass that information on to the laptop, which then works out the direction and how far into the distance a person is looking.The system responds within 10 milliseconds to the person's intention to move. Typically, anything under about 15 or 20 milliseconds feels instantaneous. The team hopes to have the system ready for sale within a few years at a cost of only £50.

It’s important that we in the health services keep abreast of developments like these so that we can tell patients and service users about their life enhancing and changing possibilities.

Brid Hehir

About the author

Bríd Hehir is a fundraising manager for the Do Good Charity, which sponsors nurse training and education in Africa. She worked in the NHS until 2011 as a nurse, midwife and specialist heath visitor, and latterly a senior manager. She is a regular contributor to spiked and is a Battle of Ideas committee member.

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