A new generation of assistive technology is helping those with disability secure their right to genuine experience.
Advances in tech are exciting in and of themselves, but they’re especially so when they are able to directly improve our life experiences. For people with disability, improvements or breakthroughs in assistive technology (AT) promote their rights to autonomy, freedom of choice and individual expression — things that able-bodied people can sometimes take for granted.
AT encompasses any technology that aides people to overcome impairments in sense or mobility in their daily lives, such as hearing aids, glasses, wheelchairs or computerised devices. Now, scientists are taking strides towards an incredibly important but so far unreachable capability of AT: promoting inclusion through genuine experience.
Improving mobility is one of the major ways to increase independence for people with disability. The more smoothly AT is integrated into the person’s life, the closer it brings the user to genuine experience — that is, to be directly engaged and in control with minimal barriers. This week, a paper was published in Nature Biotechnology about a new technology that may help make it possible for patients who have lost mobility through stroke or spinal cord injury to move a robotic exoskeleton, bionic limbs or other assistive devices through the power of thought.
Engineers and clinicians from University of Melbourne, Royal Melbourne Hospital and Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health have designed a ‘stentrode’ that sits inside a blood vessel near the motor cortex and detects brainwaves, which will then be interpreted by existing brain/machine interface software. Human trials are in the works. In the future, this device may have further applications for health, including monitoring epilepsy and stimulating parts of the brain in people with Parkinson’s disease. In terms of AT, this is a huge leap forward in giving back freedom of movement to people affected by paralysis.
Robots for Humanity is an organisation that develops remote presence devices to give freedom to people with disability. Their teletourism project uses land robots, drones and even small remote-controlled submarines that give the user the freedom to explore and experience the world using only head movements or small physical gestures. The user is able to tour the handful of museums around the world that have telepresence robots in real-time — a completely different experience to second hand accounts such as photographs or text-based tours, because the user is in direct control of the robot’s movements and is able to interact personally with tour guides and other tourists.
The founder, Henry Evans, became interested in the field after a stroke left him a mute quadriplegic at age 40. He says that the social aspects can’t be overestimated, and that breakthroughs in telepresence give people the chance to participate in mainstream society. “By virtue of remote presence devices, I was recently able to effortlessly travel all over the world while I was laying in bed,” he said. “This represents both a remarkable technological achievement and a significant levelling of the social playing field for bedridden people.”
Larger museums are increasingly promoting teletourism by providing access to remote access robotic devices, and Evans hopes this continues to spread providing opportunities for people who are unable to leave the house to engage with the outside world.
We use our voice as a means to express ourselves and our identities. But people with speech impairment don’t always have the luxury to express their thoughts in a way that is both immediate and unique. This became apparent to speech scientist and founder of VocaliD, Rupal Patel, at a conference where people with speech impairment, who were using computerised devices to speak to each other, were restricted to only a handful of generic voices. People of different ages and genders were indistinguishable by voice — a female child and a male adult would have a conversation using the exact same voice with the same expression and intonation. This gave her the idea to develop a technology that would create a unique vocal identity for the user: a customised synthetic voice.
People with speech impairment still usually have prosodic capabilities, which include the ability to control volume, pitch and duration of sound. The problem is that when the filter that forms words isn’t working they can only produce fragments of sound, which are often limited to vowel sounds. Preserving the use of these capabilities is what makes the synthetic voice unique to the user. These sounds are then combined with the voice of a donor of similar age, size and gender as a filter. Infusing the target speaker’s prosodic ability with a donor’s bank of recorded phrases delivers to the user a voice that sounds close to what their voice may have sounded like, and giving them greater control over expression. The donor voices are crowdsourced through their website and app, and anyone can contribute with a few hours of recorded material. This provides the ability to communicate using individual expression, something fundamentally lacking in generic voices.
All of these advances are working towards a greater goal. The UN Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities says that “in States where high-technology industry is available, it should be fully utilised to improve the standard and effectiveness of assistive devices and equipment.” It’s clear that in order to ensure equal opportunities for full participation and independence in daily life, the technology must continue to develop, and the responsibility is on first-world countries to push the limits of AT. By changing the lives of individuals these researchers and their technologies are helping to create a more inclusive future.