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23rd February 2016

Giving disabled kids the gift of movement

Young children are known for getting into things. That’s how they learn about the world around them. But what happens when a child is severely disabled?

A Barcelona-based organisation called the Nexe Foundation has come up with an innovative solution: an ‘intelligent’ wheelchair that allows children under the age of six to safely go exploring.

Rather than the traditional joystick that controls many self-propelled wheelchairs, Nexe’s prototype lets children move around by pressing a button that acts like a big light switch. Because it’s also possible to rig the chair so it activates by voice command, head movement or sucking on a pacifier, even kids with very limited mobility have the freedom to explore their surroundings, explains a Reuters report.

The chair was the brainchild of Nexe physiotherapist Jordi Ventura, who recognised that children without the necessary motor skills or with limited awareness of their environment wouldn’t be able to operate the usual joystick-controlled wheelchairs.

He proceeded to set up a team of professionals and relatives of disabled children to develop the intelligent chair, which was inspired by robotic vacuum cleaners that can move across the floor independently and avoid bumping into obstacles. “We’ve been working side by side with the families, who gave their technical experience and at the same time reported the mobility needs of their children at home,” Jordi told This Is Medtech.

Because the Nexe Foundation works with children from six months to six years old, it designed the first prototype with this age group in mind. “We had to start with something specific in mind, so we focused on our children. But if you change to a more powerful engine, it could also be used by adults,” Jordi added.

The wheelchair isn’t copyrighted and advice for how to make one is available free online. Its main components are inexpensive materials that can be found in most local DIY shops, as well as sensors and a computer. “We are working on the manufacture of construction kits so that anyone who needs the chair can do it by his/herself at home,” Jordi explained. One of the project’s coordinators, Fran Segovia, has likened the kits to assembling Ikea furniture.

Disability rights advocate and film student Alice Barker, who has cerebral palsy and has been a wheelchair user for most of her 20 years, sings the praises of this simple invention. “Independence should be available to all; regardless of ability there is always a degree of it we can achieve. This chair will bring independence to many people who otherwise would have thought independence was not possible. The fact that the chair is free of copyright makes it even more important,” she says.

In the future, Nexe hopes to run workshops for families on how to build the chair so that even more children will be empowered to explore. “Whatever your cognitive and motor level, whatever your skills and abilities, you can ‘drive’ our chair, because we put technology at the service of people and not as a way of excluding people from their capabilities,” comments Jordi.

And that’s not all…

Wheelchairs have certainly come a long way since Stephan Farfler, a paraplegic watchmaker from Nuremburg, invented the first self-propelled version in 1655. Replacing his hand cranks of the 17th century, today’s sophisticated chairs can be powered by the most subtle means imaginable.

For example, some wheelchairs like the version being developed by German teenagers Myrijam Stoetzer and Paul Foltin can be controlled simply by eye movement. Yet another promising chair, created by Polish PhD student Marcin Skóra, is activated with a user’s breath.

There are also prototypes under development in Switzerland and Japan (among other places) that harness the power of human brain waves to make the chair run on a person’s thoughts!

Moreover, in the US, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has spent the past decade working on an intelligent wheelchair that can learn the floor plans of various environments like a person’s home and can even anticipate a user’s daily routines.

We can’t wait to see where medtech for wheelchairs is going to take us next!

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