WREX exoskeleton at the 3D: printing the future exhibition at the Science Museum, London

WREX exoskeleton at the 3D: printing the future exhibition at the Science Museum, London. Credit: John Cummings, CC-BY-SA 3.0

Disability as defined by legislation is ‘having an impairment that has a significant impact in daily life’[1]. In a lot of cases the only reason it is a significant impact is because the systems and structures aren’t designed to be inclusive. To take a clichéd example, when steps prevent a wheelchair user from accessing a building.

Many of these issues will require society to look at the way individuals, businesses or government provide goods, services or design premises.  But many impairments affect intrinsic day-to-day activities that are mediated by technology or that could be helped with innovations in technology meaning a disabled person could be as independent as they want and need to be.

With all of the advances in technology today, I think we could be doing more. From my experience working with disabled students studying at university, these are the four areas in which I think innovation should be prioritised in order to allow disabled people to live more independent lives.

 

Prosthetics

Advances in material science, electronics and neuroscience should be used to create prosthetic limbs that are controlled directly by the brain and which are available to all.  This would enable physically impaired students to attend practical classes in laboratories, in the field or visit industrial premises.

Speech to text software

Currently, there is software that enables text to be converted to speech – a great advantage for visually impaired people and also for many dyslexic people – but there is a great need for software to convert speech to text.  What is available is not sufficient as it needs to be trained to an individual’s voice and even then is not completely accurate.

What is needed is software that recognises ANY speech and converts it accurately to text. This would enable hearing impaired and many dyslexic students to acquire notes from lectures that they could subsequently use without having to listen to lengthy recordings.

Handwriting recognition software

Handwriting can be a serious impediment for many people, those with dyspraxia, but also people with arthritis or rheumatism in their hands or arms. There is some software to recognise numbers and symbols but it is more difficult to recognise individual writing styles.

Software that is able to recognise ANY handwriting and convert it to text and audio would help people with dyspraxia / dyslexia, but also those with impairments affecting the use of their hands.

Image recognition software

Visually impaired people struggle to acquire information from maps, diagrams and photographs – wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was software that could automatically describe them in words?

 

These are just some of the possible ways forward for science and technology to enable people with impairments to function independently in the way that most of us are able to. I would advocate for these from an education perspective but I am also pleased to see that other people are thinking about how to stimulate innovation to help disabled people.

For example, this year sees “The Longitude Prize 2014” launched which commemorates the 300th anniversary of the prize for solving a major technological challenge.  This time the public can vote for one of six challenges and solving paralysis is one of these challenges.

I hope that we will see more of this and that innovation will mean that eventually no impairment will automatically be a significant impact on daily life.

 

Dr John Conway will be speaking at the Collaborative Innovation PolicyLab on 19 June. Register here if you would like to attend.

 

[1] The original Disability Discrimination Act in 1995 defined a person as disabled if they had a physical or mental impairment that had a significant impact on their daily life. This encompasses a wide range of impairments from physical impairments may be partial or total loss of sight, hearing, speech, various forms of mobility [arms, legs, spine]; mental impairments include not only mental health conditions but neurodiversity like autism and dyslexia.