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Monday, July 6, 2015

AT&T, NYU launch challenge to help develop technology for people with disabilities

The AT&T NYU Connect Ability Challenge is a three-month global software development competition leveraging mobile and wireless technologies to improve the lives of people living with disabilities.AT&T via Youtube

The AT&T NYU Connect Ability Challenge is a three-month global software development competition leveraging mobile and wireless technologies to improve the lives of people living with disabilities.

AT&T is partnering with NYU's Ability Lab to celebrate the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and help develop new technology for those with disabilities with a new initiative.
The Connect Ability Challenge is a three-month software development competition focused on developing mobile and wireless technology that can help improve the lives of people with physical, social, emotional, and cognitive disabilities.
Some of the software that was submitted includes smart glasses for the visually impaired, apps for people with autism and dementia, software for those with speech impediments and headgear for those diagnosed with ADHD. There are 63 submissions in total online.
Marissa Shorenstein, president of AT&T New York, said the challenge was inspired by other competitions created over the past years across the country and world to find technology for several sets of issues. This year's would focus on the disabilities in honor of the 25th anniversary of the ADA.
"It's a collaborative process, but it's also a competition," Shorenstein. "I'm very encouraged by the action of the exemplars."
Xian Horn is one of the exemplars and judges of the Challenge. She is a teacher, speaker and writer from Manhattan who has cerebral palsy.AT&T via Youtube

Xian Horn is one of the exemplars and judges of the Challenge. She is a teacher, speaker and writer from Manhattan who has cerebral palsy.

Developers will be judged by four exemplars—along with other AT&T executives—who have different disabilities. They will be able to genuinely review developed software and help choose a winner they think will impact the lives of many in their communities.
The four exemplars are: Xian Horn, a teacher, speaker and writer from Manhattan who has cerebral palsy; Paul Kotler, a lecturer and student from Philadelphia who has autism. Kolter communicates using computer-assisted technology and struggles with impulse control; and Jason DaSilva, a filmmaker from Brooklyn who has Multiple Sclerosis.
The fourth exemplar is Gus Chalkias, who works as an assistive technology specialist, career counselor and college student from Queens and is blind.
"It's been amazing for me to be part of something that is bigger than this contest," Chalkias told the Daily News. "I think it's setting a standard for people with disabilities. It's taking a stance where they are saying we need to include people with disabilities."
Paul Kotler, who is also judging the software, is a lecturer and student from Philadelphia who has autism. Kolter communicates using computer-assisted technology.AT&T via Youtube

Paul Kotler, who is also judging the software, is a lecturer and student from Philadelphia who has autism. Kolter communicates using computer-assisted technology.

Chalkias, along with the other exemplars, will be looking to see if the software and hardware submitted solves four functional categories and one category addressing public policy for the disabled community. The categories are: people with sensory disabilities, people in need of mobility solutions, social and emotional solutions, solutions for people with communicative and cognitive disabilities and solutions impacting policy and society.
"My biggest desire is to have some kind of technology that can get me from point 'A' to point 'B' without stopping and asking someone if I'm in the right place or room," Chalkias said. "I'm blind in a time where technology can actually meet my needs."
Kotler, who hopes the challenge improves the lives of millions, said that as a judge he's very impressed with the quality and thoughtfulness of the presentations.
"We hosted collaborations sessions a few weeks ago to help guide the developers and provide feedback prior to the submission deadline," Kotler said. "There were many apps and products that I thought were outstanding and I can't wait to see all that have been created and submitted."
The AT&T NYU Connect Ability Challenge is currently letting the public vote on submissions. Public Voting will end on July 10.AT&T via Youtube

The AT&T NYU Connect Ability Challenge is currently letting the public vote on submissions. Public Voting will end on July 10.

Developers have already submitted their software and it's currently being judged by the exemplars. The challenge is also open to the public, who can vote until July 10 on the Connect Ability Challenge's website.
The winners of the challenge will be announced on July 26, which is the anniversary of the enactment of the ADA. More than $100,000 in cash prizes will be awarded to developers in the five categories.
"While I hope that the winning solution or technology will help improve the lives of people living with autism, I also hope that the challenge has inspired developers across the world to build new tech that focuses on the user and incorporates the feedback from our community," Kotler. "I think that one of the most important things to come out of this competition will be the awareness that I am hoping developers will build."

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

These Assistive Technology Advances Will Transform Lives

These Assistive Technology Advances Will Transform Lives
By definition, technology is the application of science to make human lives better and easier. We often get lost in the latest smartphones and gadgets, but some of the most important advances are those that target those of us most in need of help – the elderly and disabled. Researchers are doing amazing things on the cutting edge of assistive technology. Let’s take a look at some examples that you or a loved one could make use of one day.

The DEKA Arm

Sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the same organization that funded the Big Dog robot, the DEKA Arm is a robotic arm designed to restore functionality to individuals who have undergone upper arm amputations. By all accounts, it has revolutionized prosthetics — giving the user greater range of motion and control options than any other solution.
The DEKA arm is still slow and clumsy compared to an organic limb, but it’s still a huge improvement over no limb at all – and the technology is improving quickly.

Grid Pad Communication Aid

Grid Pad by Smartbox is a communication aid that generates high-quality speech output for those with difficulty communicating. Depending on which model you choose, it can be controlled by touch or a very accurate eye gaze system. Users can carry it around as a mobile device or mount it on a wheelchair for easy access. Devices like the Grid Pad have the potential to change lives by breaking down a major social barrier, allowing people to communicate more effectively than ever before.

The World’s First Braille Smartphone

Imagine what it must feel like for the visually impaired to try to use a smartphone. This is a major aspect of modern life, which is almost entirely cut off to them. While most of today’s devices offer accessibility features that make some use possible, the reality is that the results are inconvenient at best. That’s why India-based startup Kriyate is working on a Braille-enabled smartphone that allows blind users to enjoy a fully touch-based experience. The device features a grid of pins that move up and down, allowing the user to touch and read messages and other information. It is expected to sell for about $184.

The Kenguru Car

If you have a disability that inhibits the use of your legs, getting around can be difficult — particularly if you need to drive somewhere. Sure, there are car modifications available, but they’re just that — modifications on vehicles designed for the non-disabled. Wouldn’t it be better to drive a car that was built from the ground up for people in wheelchairs? That’s where Kenguru comes in. It’s an electric car capable of driving up to 25 mph and up to 45 miles on a single charge, designed specifically for paraplegics. The Kenguru car allows people to be more independent and spontaneous — two traits often lost in the wake of a disability.


People with epilepsy can have seizures at any moment, often without warning. This can create a dangerous situation if they’re not prepared, particularly for epileptic children. A group of Rice University engineers has developed a wearable device that detects seizures and calls for help. Known as the SMART (Seizure Monitoring and Response Transducer) belt, it detects changes in skin conductance and monitors breathing to determine when a seizure is taking place. The device can then wirelessly notify a parent or caregiver to take action.

Self-Driving Cars

We already know that driverless cars are on track to change transportation forever, but one implication that isn’t often discussed is the potential for the blind or otherwise disabled to regain some of their independence. Once self-driving cars have become commonplace, the visually impaired and the infirm will be able to leave their homes at a moment’s notice without depending on anyone else to pick them up.
The video above shows Steve Mahan, who suffers from 95 percent vision loss, taking a ride in one of Google’s autonomous cars. “You lose your timing in life; everything takes you much longer,” he said. “There are some places that you cannot go; there are some things that you really cannot do. Where this would change my life is to give me the independence and the flexibility to go the places I both want to go and need to go, when I need to do those things.”

ReWalk Exoskeleton

When Israeli engineer Amit Goffer suffered a terrible accident that left him confined to a wheelchair, he never stopped dreaming of the day technology would allow him to walk again. In 2001, he founded ReWalk, a company that aims to help people with spinal cord injuries regain their mobility. Now, with approval from the FDA, ReWalk’s bionic exoskeleton is helping paraplegics stand and walk normally — an achievement they could only dream of just a few years ago.
These technologies can dramatically change the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in our world. They’re incredibly important – and advancing rapidly. It’s an incredibly exciting time, and anything is possible.
Have you or a loved one used any of these technologies? Did we miss anything that should have made the list? Let us know in the comments below!

Monday, June 8, 2015

Dad with motor neurone disease creates 'voice bank' for his children


A 39-year-old father of two has recorded 400 sentences so that his daughters remember his voice when he loses the power of speech to the degenerative disease

A dad-of-two has recorded his voice so his daughters can hear him talk when Motor Neurone Disease robs him of his speech. In an effort to ensure his daughters would remember his voice, devoted dad Jason Liversidge read out 400 sentences to create a voice bank for when he loses his speech. The 39-year-old was diagnosed with the muscle-wasting disease in August 2013, and so his daughters Lilly, three, and Poppy, two, dont have to listen to a synthetic voice he has recorded himself speaking.
Jason Liversidge with his wife Elizabeth and children Lilly, aged three (L), and Poppy, two Photo: Caters
A father of two from East Yorkshire has recorded himself speaking over 400 sentences so that his daughters will recognise his voice when his speech is eventually taken away by motor neurone disease.
Former council worker Jason Liversidge, 39, from Hull, was diagnosed in summer 2013 with the degenerative illness, a rare condition that progressively damages parts of the nervous system, and which causes the progressive loss of bodily functions such as mobility, communication, swallowing and breathing.
After Mr Liversidge's wife Elizabeth spotted a tweet from an Edinburgh clinic, he travelled to Scotland earlier this month to record hundreds of phrases into a voice bank.
The phrases will then be installed into a special computer. When his condition becomes more severe, the computer can be controlled by eye movements, allowing him to communicate with his family and the outside world.
Mr Liversidge told the Mirror: Keeping a line of communication open is so important to me. The girls are too young now and don’t understand. But I want them to remember my voice and not something robotic.”
He added that his daughters - Lilly, three, and Poppy, two - have made him determined to fight the disease. "It’s a reason to carry on. Lilly asked me the other day why I couldn’t run. I just said ‘dad is broke’.
“I could sit there and get frustrated at the fact it is stopping me doing stuff but then I’m going to get frustrated about all of it. I make the most of what I can do.”
According to the NHS, motor neurone disease is a rare condition that affects around two in every 100,000 people in the UK each year. There are about 5,000 people living with the condition in the UK at any one time.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Competition Pits Tech Developers Against Disability Challenges


Paul Kotler and his mother, Melinda. (Credit: Ian Bush)
Paul Kotler and his mother, Melinda. (Credit: Ian Bush)
By KYW tech editor Ian Bush
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – There are just a few weeks of tinkering to go for some Philadelphia-area developers competing in a worldwide $100,000 challenge. Their goal is to come up with technology to empower people with disabilities.
Think of Paul Kotler as Steve Jobs when it comes to this contest: he’s the idea man.
“We need an app that senses our anxiety and provides calming feedback,” Kotler says. “Typing faster helps a lot. And being able to arrange it to help with some simple tasks as a learning tool.”
The 26-year-old from Downingtown has autism, and uses an iPad with text-to-speech software to help him communicate. But it’s not enough. It can’t keep up with him. Updates in apps and operating systems make for confusing changes. And it certainly can’t convey his passion for advocating for others with the neurodevelopmental disorder.
The app and hardware developers taking part in the Connect Ability Challenge look to him, as well as to three other exemplars — Jason DaSilva, a Brooklyn filmmaker with multiple sclerosis; Xian Horn, a Manhattan teacher, speaker, and writer with cerebral palsy; and Gus Chalkias, an assistive technology specialist and career counselor from Queens who is blind — to guide them toward solutions to the stumbling blocks they encounter.
AT&T and New York University’s Ability Lab are partnering on the three-month competition, which offers a $25,000 grand prize for the designer of a new app, wearable, or other technology judged best at improving the lives of people with disabilities. Some of the ideas for Paul include using stenographic theory in an app to help him translate his thoughts to text and speech more quickly, and a biosensor that could predict and prevent anxiety attacks.
“Communication is central to everything in life, to feeling part of a community, to working, to learning, to feeding strong relationships, and to independence,” Kotler says. “I want to do this because I understand how it is to feel trapped inside — wanting out, but with no way to express it. I want to get the word out that people with autism have a place and deserve to be understood and heard.”
“I’m very proud,” says Paul’s mom, Melinda. “He went through a lot to get where he is today, and he does feel that he needs to provide that same opportunity to other people in his situation, and unfortunately there are many others in his situation.”
Melinda is co-founder and executive director of TALK Institute and School in Newtown Square, which serves students with speech and language disorders. The organization is hosting an open house on June 3.
“Individuals with severe speech and language disorders and children with autism are often assumed to be cognitively impaired, but that’s an unfair judgment,” she explains. “They are intelligent. And it’s very important that children or any individual with autism be given the opportunity to have a system that allows them to communicate at their true level of communication.”
Competitors have been working since early April on their designs. The winners will be announced on July 26 — the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Building better assistive technology with open hardware

Posted 27 May 2015 by 

For many people, technology assists and augments our lives, making certain tasks easier, communicating across long distances possible, and giving us the opportunity to be more informed about the world around us. However, for many people with disabilities, technology is not an accessory but essential to living an independent and quality life.

Assistive technology such as Augmented/Assisted Communication (AAC), Text-to-Speech and Speech-to-Text (TTS/STT), magnifiers, screen readers, and eye gaze systems enable people with disabilities to accomplish what others take for granted on a daily basis. Unfortunately, the majority of assistive technology devices are unsettlingly expensive, and they age rapidly, with little in the way of customer-serviceable parts.

Why closed assistive technology is a problem

Closed assistive technology hardware creates new problems while trying to solve others. Although accessible and providing much-needed augmentation and accommodation to the user, the devices available are limited and can be prohibitively expensive. Magnifiers can be priced as high as $2,000 and up, and AAC devices start out in the hundreds for extremely basic functions, costing up to thousands for a devices that speaks what you have typed. Eye gaze systems (setups that allow users to move the mouse pointer using their heads or eyes) can start at $5,000 and quickly rise to more than $10,000. There is an obvious trend of prices of such systems rising in proportion to the severity of the person's disability: The more a person needs the device, the more it costs.
Even if one is able to obtain the device needed, keeping up with updates, maintenance, and making repairs if something happens to the device is difficult. Finding repair manuals, teardowns, guides, and so on for such hardware isn't easy, and if the operating system is embedded in the hardware, it's even more problematic.
I obtained a proprietary AT device in 2011 from a silent auction at a conference. When the device was new (early 2000s), it retailed for more than $5,000. The device is an AAC "tablet" with a touchscreen, an abundance of ports (for example, firewire, USB, and audio ports), a large speaker for communication purposes, two CompactFlash card readers, a rechargeable 7.8-volt battery, and a kickstand. It's heavy, a bit cumbersome, and locked down. My attempts at unlocking the device and installing Linux on it have, so far, been unsuccessful.

The device I was able to purchase a few years ago: rubberized coating on the outside frame, a simple power button and LED indicator, and touchscreen.

Device with cover off: touchscreen in foreground

Touchscreen disconnected and moved to the side
In this image, there is no SSD or traditional hard drive; the only removable storage is via the CompactFlash card. The large metal box inside the frame on the left is the battery storage compartment.

Motherboard (I believe) removed from frame and turned over
In this image, note the eight ports and what might be infrared communication LEDs on the left side.

Case with both motherboard and input board removed
As the images show, although the device can be opened and torn down, there's not a lot that can be serviced—no replaceable hard drive, no sockets to upgrade memory, no way to unlock the device and install a different OS. Once this device was no longer able to keep up with modern-day specifications, it was destined for the junk heap. A lifespan of 10 years for any device may seem generous—especially by today's standards—but for something that is absolutely needed just to communicate with others, it's frustratingly short and inadequate.

Open hardware as an assistive technology option

Examined through the lens of accessibility, open hardware brings a lot of advantages, such as letting people with disabilities use readily available hardware that others use regardless of ability. Open hardware's basic tenets in openness and usability allow for the creation of more customized, personalized assistive technology devices that fit a user's needs. Open hardware allows for features to be added or removed as an individuals' needs change with age and ability, extending the life of their device. The availability of parts, detailed guides, and tutorials on various single-board computers (SBCs) and components, ease of repair, and affordability are all profound qualities that are not only wanted, but needed in AT. Also, since open hardware is not locked behind proprietary controls and patents, there's no requirement to use insurance or obtain medical permission to alter, modify, or change the state of what is truly owned by the person—in this case, their own assistive technology device.
There are some great projects and real-life examples of how to implement accessibility using open hardware that you can find across the web. For example, Dheera Venkatraman created Sesame using an app he created and an Arduino Uno, a bluetooth module, and a servo.
Brett Martin (aka pcmofo on put together an excellent guide a few years ago describing how to build an RFID door lock system using an Arduino chip, an RFID reader, and an electric door lock.
Another intriguing project is the Eyewriter, which started as a way to enable the graffiti artist Tempt1, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2003, to not only communicate but to continue to create art. Through a cheap pair of sunglasses, a PS3 camera, infrared LEDs, copper wire, and over two weeks worth of development, an eye gaze system was born.


Through the use of open hardware, an open community of makers, and the inclusion of people with disabilities, we can build assistive technology that will augment and improve the future for users with a range of abilities. 

Great advances being made in assistive technology


As one researcher notes, “I think we’re in the middle of a revolution in technology for people with impairments”

Pizza delivery apps. Fitness trackers. Dashboard GPS. Often, technology makes life easier for people whose lives are already very easy.
But what about next-generation wheelchairs or 3D-printed prosthetics?
In the field of assistive technology, scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs are also making life easier for people with disabilities, chipping away at truly big problems at steady pace. Their successes are likely to accelerate.
“I think we’re in the middle of a revolution in technology for people with impairments,” says David Reinkensmeyer, a biorobotics researcher at the University of California, Irvine.
“This field, from when I started 15 years ago until now, has really seen an attraction of younger people wanting to get involved,” says Alex Mihailidis, a University of Toronto professor who holds a chair in rehabilitation technology.
“People are seeing this as a challenging and exciting application.”
Yet these researchers are often confronted with hurdles that designers of mainstream tech — whether silly or genuinely useful — are not: regulatory barriers, marketplace fragmentation, and even our own unconscious biases.
Growing up in Alberta, Gary Kurek was a high school science-fair phenom, ranking provincially, nationally and internationally. In his senior year, after watching his grandmother struggle with the effects of cancer, he set out to build a better wheelchair.
His novel design piqued the interest of Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel, who chose Kurek for a prestigious $100,000 Thiel Fellowship for entrepreneurs under 20. Among other mobility devices, Kurek built a wheelchair that could climb stairs.
But he eventually dropped the project, in large part due to regulatory struggles.
“We got really bogged down . . . It was going to take a ton of money and a ton of time,” he says. The market for his product wasn’t big enough to justify the investment. Though he would like to come back to mobility products, Kurek is now working on automated manufacturing.
Because many assistive technologies fall under the banner of medical devices, they must be approved by oversight bodies such as Health Canada or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Those in the field acknowledge that safety is paramount, but say the process can sometimes stifle innovation: it is lengthy, costly, and “still quite prohibitive to a lot of startups,” says Mihailidis. “That’s one of the big next hurdles we need to tackle as a field.”
Compounding that problem, the market for assistive technologies is highly fragmented, even though it is large and growing rapidly with the aging populations of most developed countries.
“For sure there’s a big, big need ... but the market is pretty heterogeneous, in the sense that there are a vast numbers of impairments that cause disabilities to arise,” says Melanie Baljko, a York University professor who specializes in assistive technology.
“Everyone experiences their impairment differently.”
Even reaching those consumers is a challenge. Many people who need these products don’t buy them directly: insurance companies, caregivers and clinicians all act as mediators.
At the same time, other technological advances have begun to carve new pathways forward. The advent of 3D printers, Baljko and Mihailidis both note, has fuelled a thriving DIY culture where designs for items like modified light switches and spoons are shared openly online, circumventing the need for a traditional marketplace and allowing for low-cost customization.
“This is really putting the power of technology development into the hands of people who know best,” Baljko says.
Other general advances have spurred assistive tech too: the price of sensors is dropping, and machine-learning algorithms are only getting smarter. Smartphones and tablets have created a platform for the proliferation of interactive games that help people with challenges.
Shifting social attitudes have also helped. “It’s becoming increasingly socially acceptable to have technology on your body — Apple Watch for example,” says Reinkensmeyer. “We’re all just using technology to enhance our abilities.”
But attitude is the most invisible barrier for assistive tech, he adds. “You know what holds us back? The attitude the people can’t: ‘You can’t have a spinal cord injury and play basketball, or ski . . . ’ How long did that societal attitude hold back the development of technologies?” he asks. “We don’t even know what our assumptions are.”
For Kate Allen, writing about assistive technologies hits home
Here is a typical email from my Dad, who has Parkinson’s disease:
“Kate I hope that your gum problem has lessened and then you I know a virtuous Flossie — try this again — and that you are a virtuous Flossie to Flossie newsflash to the Flossie Turley — what I’m trying to say is if you have seen the error of your ways and now floss your teeth regularly — my God!, It said what I wanted to thank you for his time to say goodbye.”
In case you couldn’t tell, he’s trying to urge me to floss better (I’m 30, for the record). But the voice-recognition software he uses — designed to circumvent his shaky hands — clearly had other ideas.
My English-professor father sent the garbled email for hilarity’s sake, as he often does. I forwarded to my brother for laughs and forgot about it. But a few weeks later when I was aflutter over a new app that offers on-demand lunch delivery, I stopped and thought: this is ridiculous. Why are so many people trying to make it easier for me to buy a sandwich, when it was already really, really easy for me to buy a sandwich? How many people are trying to “disrupt” the crappy technology available to my Dad, who actually needs it?
In the course of trying to answer that question, I stumbled across a fascinating new study led by scientists at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute. The research team, led by University of Toronto speech-language pathology professor Yana Yunusova, is testing whether using video games to visualize speech therapy exercises will be more effective at helping Parkinson’s patients improve their characteristically slurred speech. Users repeat tongue-twisters with electromagnetic sensors in their mouths, and the better they do, the more fire a virtual dragon spits out, burning down a stand of trees.
My Dad was game. We showed up the TRI on a Tuesday morning, and the team carefully wired him up. “Super Sue sat sewing,” he said over and over again.
He found the process frustrating — “They have a strange idea of what a game is, I must say,” he wrote me later — but recognized the importance of what the scientists were trying to accomplish, and will return to be a full participant in the trial.
As I discovered, it’s just a lot harder to bring assistive technology to market than it is to build an Uber for sandwiches or an app that only says “Yo.” But it’s not for lack of a community of people who care deeply, and who are working extraordinarily hard.

Four Novel Assistive Technologies

Engineered by researchers in the Bloorview Research Institute at Toronto’s Holland Bloorview rehabilitation hospital and backed by Grand Challenges Canada, AT-Knee’s designers spent years studying how to make it as biomechanically efficient as possible, with a novel locking mechanism that mimics the stability of real knees.
While the trend in prosthetics has been toward high-tech robotics and motorization, LegWorks’ chief technology officer Jan Andrysek notes that the bulk of lower-limb amputees live in countries and communities where such expensive technology is out of reach.
“We came up with very simple concept that provided the function that we need,” said Andrysek. After rounds of clinical testing in Chile, Tanzania, Burma, Canada, and elsewhere, LegWorks is aiming for widespread adoption: “we’re trying to be everywhere.”
Swizzle Shave
A team of University of Toronto engineering undergraduates designed this razor to accommodate the jerky movements of Huntington’s disease patients. It is a finalist in the 2015 Innovative Designs for Accessibility, a competition for Ontario university students. Michelle Samfira, a co-creator, called the team’s work “really rewarding.”
Music Glove
The sensor-filled glove is designed to by worn by stroke patients and played with a game that works a lot like Guitar Hero. The system coaxes stroke survivors to use the kind of hand movements that will help them regain dexterity. It was created by Nizan Friedman, a former graduate student in the lab of University of California, Irvine’s David Reinkensmeyer.
Professor Goldie Nejat, who directs the Autonomous Systems and Biomechatronics Laboratory at U of T’s Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department, designed Brian, a socially assistive robot. Using machine learning, Brian can talk and joke, and is designed to help cognitively impaired seniors accomplish tasks like finishing meals or taking medication on time.
Toronto Star

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Wheelchair Lift Technology Doesn't Require Attendant


Tue, 06/02/2015 - 9:28am
University of Illinois
A Chicago-based startup with a team of University of Illinois alumni has developed a technology, which will make it much easier and cost-effective for wheelchair users to get up and down stairs in their home without needing an attendant. Now that startup, EscaWheel Inc., is using a Kickstarter campaign to commercialize that technology with a goal of raising $25,000 in 30 days.
“We recognized the need for a product that could take wheelchairs up and down the stairs without the help of an attendant and at an affordable cost,” said EscaWheel CEO and co-founder Anando Naqui. “The cost is not covered by Medicare, Medicaid or most private insurance.”

The two most popular existing technologies are the stair lift, which transports a person up stairs via track on an attached chair, and a platform lift, which allows the user to roll onto the platform and takes both the wheelchair and the person up the stairs. Both methods have their drawbacks.
The stair lift is designed primarily for those who can walk, but have trouble getting up the stairs. For those in a wheelchair, it means having a wheelchair on each floor and most times an attendant to help transfer the person from the lift to the wheelchair. That technology installed typically runs between $5,000-$7,000 installed. The platform technology, meanwhile, typically costs upwards from $20,000 installed, and most houses don’t have staircases wide enough to accommodate them.
EscaWheel is in the process of patenting a forklift technology. Rather than picking up the wheelchair at the base of the wheels like a platform does, it lifts the wheelchair up from under the seat. This designs minimizes the footprint of the device with forks that can fold up when not in use. The goal is to mass-produce the final product for around the cost of the chairlift.
Naqui notes that with most bedrooms on the second floor of a modern home, making it possible for parents to get upstairs to tuck in their children or read them a story at night is a strong emotional benefit. While developing the technology he spent a few days in a wheelchair to try to understand the issues wheelchair users face. He noted several commonly overlooked challenges such as slippery floors that can’t get traction or thresholds or bumps with one step up or down.
“For a person in a wheelchair, one step might as well be 100,” he said. “If someone has become disabled from an injury say in a car accident, it’s unfair to force someone out of their home just because it’s multi-story.”
The idea started in the fall of 2011 as part of a senior design project by mechanical science and engineering students Naqui, Jake How and Chis Delaney. In 2012, the team claimed first prize in the Innoventor Trophy competition, which recognizes startups that can have potential to make a societal impact and have a viable business model. A finalist for the Cozad New Venture Competition, EscaWheel, won two in-kind prizes -- space at EnterpriseWorks, the University of Illinois’ tech incubator, and services of Singleton Law Firm to help patent the technology.
Over the next two years, the trio set off on different paths, hoping to further pursue refining and commercialization during their spare time. How completed a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford, while Delaney and Naqui entered the workforce. Recognizing that the business wasn’t advancing in the way and speed, they had hoped for, Naqui, quit his full-time consulting job last fall to focus on EscaWheel full-time. He refined the business model, worked on pitches, engaged investors and prepared for the Kickstarter campaign.
EscaWheel used seed funding from the senior design project to build the first prototype and prove the technology.
They plan to use funds from Kickstarter to build a second prototype that is refined, aesthetically pleasing and more conducive to residential use. The prototype will have advanced safety systems, smarter electronic controls and a swiveling mechanism to rotate the wheelchair 90 degrees and allow for it to roll off straight ahead at the top of the stairs.
The goal is to have the second prototype completed by the end of the summer and start field-testing it in early fall, rekindling the relationship they have made with the award-winning wheelchair basketball program on the U of I campus.
“As a person that has used a wheelchair for 25 years and as a person that has had both a stair lift and elevator modes of accessibility in multi-floor residences, I am excited to see the EscaWheel project move forward,” said Michael Frogley, former U of I coach and now director of wheelchair basketball Canada. “It opens up the possibility of independence and accessibility in a way that could not be considered in the past. It has tremendous potential to improve the quality of the lives of people with disabilities by providing a safe, efficient and affordable option to multi-level dwellings.”