Development Of Best Practices In Technology Research To Help Disabled People

Singapore, 26 September 2005 – 34-year-old stroke survivor Lee Boon Kian uses a walking frame. He hopes to be able to walk on his own again soon so that he can find a job in the open market and regain his independence.

With the development of the Lower Extremity Exoskeleton, his wish may soon come true.

The idea of Nanyang Technological University Ph.D. student Liu Xiaopeng, the device was first conceived for military use for carrying heavy loads. In the course of developing the device, he discovered that the application could be adapted to help people with physical disabilities to walk.

It works on the basis of two sub-systems, or exoskeletons, gathering signals from the user and transmitting it to computers where the control algorithms calculate and command movement. Having been explored in countries like the United States and Japan for the same purposes, the local version employs a technology different from the rest. It uses an encoder which measures the degree of movement and magnifies the abilities of the user to achieve the action he intends to do.

According to supervising lecturer Dr Low Kin Huat, the device would be useful for many people who have limitations in walking, from the elderly, to stroke and spinal cord injury survivors, as well as those suffering from severe arthritis. “The device can also be further adapted to include an upper extremity version”, said the Associate Professor from NTU. “Or even apply it to other uses, like helping in various rehabilitation processes for people with physical disabilities.”

Despite the prediction that the Lower Extremity Exoskeleton could help many, resistance to technology and other factors may result in the device, like other AT devices developed before, not reaching optimal impact.

“Technology can greatly enable disabled people, yet not every disabled person readily embraces AT. This is puzzling especially when you compare it with the high level of technological sophistication and penetration in Singapore. There are many issues that need to be addressed before AT can be widely accepted,” said Dr Ow Chee Chung, Executive Director of The Society for the Physically Disabled (SPD).

“Resistance to technology, lack of access to it, and a high incidence of disabled people rejecting the AT device after a year of use are just some problems that we have encountered at our Specialised Assistive Technology Centre. There are many possible reasons for resistance and abandonment. Resistance could be due to insufficient knowledge and lack of support from families, teachers and friends. Abandonment of technology could be due to poor matching of needs and technology, lack of proper training in use of technology, and lack of users’ acceptance.”

SPD believes that setting best practices in AT research, such as encouraging researchers to involve practitioners and potential users in the development of their inventions, would help to boost the use and acceptance of AT in Singapore.

Like the Exoskeleton, the Shopping Cart for Wheelchair Users is a device being developed that is employing this practice. Before they embarked on their final year project, Temasek Polytechnic students Shaikh Abdul Alyym, Mohamad Shuhaimi and Muhammad Khair first contacted the therapists at SPD to find out what device would be of help to people with physical disabilities. Deciding on a shopping cart that would make shopping easier for wheelchair users, they went on to develop a cart containing a shopping basket that can be clipped on a wheelchair, and free the user’s hands to maneuver his wheelchair.

The project was put through a few trials by potential users and the feedback gathered from them as well as therapists was recorded and improvements made to the original prototype. Improvements include making the width of the cart adjustable to fit the different widths of wheelchairs and making the cart foldable and more compact.

To promote the setting of best practices to encourage better and more effective research to help others, SPD has taken the initiative to organize the AT Research Forum: “Best Practices in AT Research”. It is also promoting the need for research to go beyond hardware to include the software, even to the study of how to increase acceptance of AT amongst potential users.

The Research Forum was the first of its kind staged in Singapore. Organised as under the networking event Global Entrepolis @ Singapore and held on 26 September at Suntec Singapore International Convention & Exhibition Centre, it involved 120 technology users, caregivers, as well as foreign and local researchers and practitioners who hailed from the fields of rehabilitation medicine, assistive technology and rehabilitation engineering.

The Forum further aimed to encourage greater collaboration between these parties. It was to be the platform where researchers, practitioners, caregivers and disabled people could get together and discuss how AT research could be improved.

“The AT Research Forum helps by bringing stakeholders together for a comprehensive and robust discussion on the various needs. The area of AT Research can only get better after this,” said Dr Guan Cuntai, Manager, Pervasive Signal Processing Department, I2R and one of the presenters at the Forum.

An AT Research Workgroup currently being formed by SPD to look into promoting AT Research will compile the feedback gathered at the Forum and develop a list of best practices to improve AT research & development in Singapore. The list is expected to be ready by December this year, and will be made available to researchers, practitioners and technology users in early 2006.