Using the latest in advanced robotic prosthetics, Open Bionic’s prototype hands generate movement in the fingers in response to electrodes connected to muscles in an amputee’s arm.
“It’s an intuitive way to operate the hand and it give them (amputees) back a freedom of movement that they had previously lost or were born without in some cases”, Joel Gibbard, the company’s founder, has said.
A winner at the recent Tech4Good awards, Open Bionics’ prototype is emblematic of a gradual, but burgeoning interest in how new technologies can help meet disabled people’s needs.
So-called assistive technology has the potential to “transform the level of dignity and independence that disabled people experience in their everyday lives”, argues Constance Agyeman, manager of theInclusive Technology Prize at the independent charity Nesta.
Despite emerging interest in this space, however, current solutions are frequently expensive, unattractive and too narrowly-focused, adds Agyeman. “The feeling from a range of disability network organisations is that a lot of the big manufacturers are very much tied to the healthcare sector… which means there is a limited range of assistive technologies for disabled people to access.”
Increasing the pace of innovationIn an attempt to broaden the scope of assistive technologies currently available, Nesta awarded £10,000 to each of the 10 finalists of its prize to bring their ideas to market. The list includes a free-to-use communication aid, an “evolvable” walking aid, a one-handed lap belt for wheelchair users and a hearing loop listening app.
In a similar competition last year, Google recognised – among others – a network of volunteers who use 3D printers to provide prosthetics for free. The e-NABLE community received a $600,000 grant to advance its work. In a UK version of the competition, RNIB, the charity for the blind, won an award for its development of “smart glasses” that improve the sight of individuals with limited vision.
According to Agyeman, “Unless you have a deep understanding of what it means on a day-to-day basis to experience what a disabled person is experiencing, it’s very difficult to cater to those needs.”
Virgin Media seems to have taken that message on board, this week launching a £1m partnership with disability charity Scope. The partnership, which marks a paring down of Virgin’s 27 different charity relationships, will see experts from Scope working alongside the company’s internal innovations team.
The alliance will build on existing trials of assistive technologies undertaken by the company over recent years, such as a bluetooth-enabled system that automatically tracks and records the vital health stats of individuals with conditions such as hypertension, obesity and diabetes.
The funding will also help Scope disseminate information and training around assistive technologies it is using in the four specialist schools it currently runs. Examples include “switching devices”, which enable computers, tablets and other learning equipment to be controlled by everything from eye movements to hand gestures.
“There is always more tech companies like us can be doing,” says Katie Buchanan, head of sustainability at Virgin Media. “Technology is moving quickly, so I think we have a role to play to help [disabled] consumers as well as charities to keep up with that pace of change.”
According to Scope, 27% of disabled adults have never used the internet, compared to 11% of non-disabled adults.
Making the right technologyFor Jaime Purvis, an expert in screen-reading software at the Digital Accessibility Centre, a non-profit working on digital inclusion, the tech industry needs to move faster on assistive technology.
“There’s more being done now than three or four years ago, but it’s still not as widespread as it could be … There are a lot of [disabled] people being left behind because they don’t have access to the hardware that tech companies are creating,” he says.
Making the tech industry aware of the “huge market potential” for inclusive assistive technologies would help galvanise activity, he suggests. It’s an argument disability charities are increasingly comfortable with, according to Tamsin Baxter, head of partnerships at Scope.
Baxter cites the final report of the independent Extra Costs Commission, published in June, which puts the spending power of disabled people in the UK at £212bn per year. Individuals with physical impairments, for example, incur disability-related costs of almost £300 a week, the report states.
“With 53% of households in the UK having a connection with or being touched by disability, it’s not a niche group [so] there’s real value in seeing disabled people as a group of consumers,” says Baxter.