Modern science ultimately exists to better humanity, and although there are very differing opinions on what “bettering humanity” is, this writer thinks we can all agree that investing in technology that helps improve the lives of the differently-abled is an unambiguously good thing.
There’s the seemingly-minor upgrade to the Apple Watch, which encourages wheelchair-users to wheel or spin around at regular intervals. The Apple Watch currently prompts those without physical disabilities to get up from their desks – but this is at the expense of inclusivity, since everybody benefits from some kind of exercise. It may seem small to some, but it is a step towards mainstream inclusion of all bodies, particularly since this is a feature of a free software upgrade, so no new hardware or extra money would be required.
Specialty hardware is important, however, and has been around for decades. Maltron, a manufacturer of specialized computer keyboards for various physical disabilities, was founded in 1977! They make one-handed keyboards (for both the left and the right hands), single-finger keyboards, and even keyboards for use with a head or a mouth stick. There is also a keyboard made with recessed keys for those with cerebral palsy.
There’s also the enPathia, which can be thought of as an adapted mouse. It’s a small sensor that can be attached to a band, which can then be attached to any part of the body, at any position. There’s a lot of emphasis on the product adapting to the user, so there is no discomfort or steep learning curve when using enPathia. It can be used on the head, forearms, even feet!
Some folks with mobility difficulties may soon get a lot of use out of very technologically advanced prosthetics such as this prosthetic arm, the fingers of which can be moved individually with the user’s mind.
There are two separate research groups, in the US and in South Korea, who have already developed prototypes. In the US, at Stanford University, Zhenan Bao’s team has already developed a “skin-like self-healing polymer material” and an electronic skin that changes colour depending on the pressure applied to it. Their skin, the Digital Tactile System (DiTact) is an “artificial mechanoreceptor system”, and is a thin plastic two-layered sheet . There are sensors in the top layer that relay pressure information to a flexible electronic circuit in the bottom layer. Here, the information from the sensors is translated into pulses of light which will then be transmitted to nerve cells via light-emitting diodes.
In South Korea is Hyonhyub Ko’s research group, at Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology. When pressure is applied onto their two-layered skin, electrodes within both layers connect, and the sensors’ electrical conductance and resistance both change. Because of the microscopic ridges, the skin is super sensitive: it can detect water droplets and single hair strands!
It’s only a matter of time (and corporate investment) until these technologies are made into products that are easily accessible to the public. We think that, in a world where science is making leaps as bold as this one, and in a world where mobility and accessibility is not only amended but also enhanced, the possibilities for advancements in all areas are boundless.
Do you agree? Would you give any of these inventions a try?