Friday, September 27, 2013

GoBabyGo: It's Like 'Top Gear' for Children with Limited Mobility

People seem to talk all the time about how much learning happens within a very small window of time during childhood. Children's curiosity and ability to explore their surroundings is extremely important in making cognitive process and developing social skills. But what, then, happens to those children who have mobile limitations and are unable to crawl or walk around the unfamiliar parts of their environments?

Dr. Cole Galloway, professor of physical therapy and University of Delaware, was been working to get around this predicament. Galloway saw that motorized chairs that would give some independence to users aren't usually available to kids until they are older, so he decided to develop his own chairs in a project called GoBabyGo. He quickly found that his high-tech robotics were too expensive and could not easily be produced in a volume that met demand, but eventually decided to try fixing up a product that was already on the market: battery powered toy cars.

Galloway and his tiny client in a converted Tow Mater toy.
Galloway took the Barbie Jeeps and Lightning McQueens and gave them a little race car tune up. The augmented toys have padded safety cages, seat belt harnesses, and custom driver controls to suit the users' needs. His cars are tested by his clients on both and indoor and outdoor tracks, and he even has traveling seminars to teach families how to convert their own motorized toys to make them more accessible.

It doesn't end here with Galloway. The success of GoBabyGo prompted him to design the prototype for UDare2B, aka Big Blue, a toy car with a specific purpose and a lot of tech. Big Blue's egg shape makes it look sleek, fierce, and futuristic, but it also acts as a support and a protective roll cage of sorts. It has an adaptive steering system that lets the controls be adjusted to the physical abilities of the driver. Additionally, the tight turning radius, compact size, and light weight make it highly maneuverable and suitable for indoor and outdoor use. Computerized monitoring in the cars log data to help researchers learn how they are being used by children.
UDare2Be / Big Blue

It seems like a pretty big undertaking, but the project could produce a working model of Big Blue in about a year if all goes well, and there is already commercial interest from adult mobility scooter companies. This would mean having clinically effective and real-world ready vehicles for young children, which is awesome.

What do you think of the design? How about Dr. Galloway's endeavor as a whole? Share your thoughts!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Whirlwind RoughRider: A Hardcore Set of Humanitarian Wheels

A remake of the 1960s television series, “Ironside”, a detective show whose protagonist is a wheelchair-bound paraplegic, will air on October 2nd. Of course, it doesn't come without a bit of controversy. Detective Ironside will be played by Blair Underwood rather than by a paraplegic actor. I could go into the various viewpoints on this subject and perhaps will at some other point, but today I would rather share some information about the rad company that made Underwood/Ironside's wheelchair.

Whirlwind Wheelchair International has been creating wheelchairs specially designed to accommodate users in developing countries for over 30 years. I don't know if I can properly explain how awesome these things are. Not only does Whirlwind help improve the lives of the disabled, it also promotes sustainable local economic growth by creating chairs that can be fixed by locals using materials that are easily obtained in a given area. The wheels are made from bicycle tires, which makes them affordable, easy to replace, and practical for travel on multiple road surfaces. Also, the bearings are the same used in Honda motorcycles, which are very common modes of transportation throughout the developing world.

The chairs are inexpensive and durable, and they are suited for the user's individual needs. For example, muddy or broken sidewalks with no curb ramps make standard hospital wheelchairs prone to tipping, but Whirlwind's RoughRider design has an extra long wheelbase for increased stability. Users can even climb down sidewalk curbs without fear of tumult.

Because of their easy maneuverability and functionality, Whirlwind's chairs allow users to be more active players in their communities and therefore increase their quality of life. One user even said, “In this chair, no one mistakes me for a beggar,” and an employee at a wheelchair shop was able to continue tending chickens in his backyard thanks to his dirt-friendly RoughRider.

And there's more! Whirlwind's chairs are adjustable to user's backs and have special pressure sore relief cushions. Both of these features make the chairs more comfortable and better suited for individual users, as adjusting the back to fit the contours of the user's spine helps prevent further injury and pain.

Also, these things are aesthetically pleasing. They look strong and mobile rather than stiff or clunky, which only adds to the appeal of these high-functioning wheelchairs. And, although they were originally designed for the developing world, RoughRiders are now available in the United States. I think they sound great for an Oregonian: outdoorsy, adventurous, and sustainable!

What do you think about Whirlwind's wheelchairs? Their philosophy? Or maybe you'd like to start a dialogue about Ironside? That would be great, too. :)

Friday, September 13, 2013

Gallaudet's Architecture Satisfies the Senses

I've heard it said before that our senses can actually limit us more than they help us. For example, the Who's famous rock opera, Tommy, expresses that life without sight, sound, or speech leads to enlightenment, and in one of my favorite childhood books, A Wrinkle in Time, a sightless character from another galaxy is vexed by the reliance of humans on their senses, claiming that they seem so constricting. Recently, architect David Lewis proposed that our senses have lowered our expectations for the quality of space in which we live and work.

Lewis is the lead architect at New York City-based LTL Architects and is at the front of Gallaudet University's newest residence hall. Gallaudet is home to almost 2,000 students who are deaf or hearing impaired, so it was important that the new hall follow the design principles of DeafSpace, an initiative created in 2005 by architect Hansel Bauman to develop architectural guidelines that improved interactions amongst the deaf community. DeafSpace's design elements address space and proximity, sensory reach, mobility and proximity, light and color, and acoustics, all of which can be issues for the deaf.

You wouldn't notice right off that the residence hall was designed specifically for deaf students. The first thing you might notice is how open and well-lit it is, or you might see that your skin has a healthy glow to it rather than the somewhat greenish tinge it takes on in white rooms with florescent lighting. Then you might say, “Wow” and notice that in spite of the open space, your utterance did not fly across the room in echo. Wouldn't it be nice if this were the case every time you walked in a building?

These appealing examples are the results of very intentional design choices to make Gallaudet's new dorm more accessible for its residents. Here are some of the key features of the building:

  • The community room on the ground floor has sloped ceiling that aligns perfectly with the inclines ground outside, and the wall is essentially a giant window. This way, people inside and outside the building can communicate with one another via sign language.

  • Similarly, the centrally located stairwell is transparent as well. Rather than a separated cement staircase (like, for example, the one in Neuberger Hall), this one is open, well-lit, and in the middle of the room, allowing for easier communication.

  • The 12-foot-wide hallways are twice as wide as standard halls.

  • The hall's kitchen has all appliances concentrated to an island in the middle so that students don't have to have their backs to one another.

  • The interior colors (red, yellow, green, and steel blue) were chosen to enhance natural skin tones in order to make facial expressions easier to read.

  • The ceiling is paneled, and an acoustic blanket sits under the concrete floor to enhance and tighten acoustics. This reduces the reverberations that can mess with hearing aids and, consequently, keeps voices from carrying across a room.

  • Unfortunately there were not enough funds for a huge skylight, but hey, maybe someday!

So here's what I'm thinking: Why aren't all new buildings following the DeafSpace guidelines? I think it sounds pretty good! It seems our senses let us build these obstacles—like dark, narrow halls and stairwells—simply because we can get around them without too much struggle or complaint. But why not make our space more beautiful, intuitive, and accessible for all people? 

Friday, September 6, 2013

Finding a Better Bottom Line

At the end of last week's post, I mentioned the new plan to increase the number of people with disabilities employed by companies that do business with the federal government. While this plan has a solid philanthropic base, companies like Walgreens are hiring more people with disabilities not out of moral obligation, but because it's economically sound.

Right now, companies are typically asked to employ people with disabilities out of kindness or civic responsibility. Even the aforementioned federal plan is more focused on philanthropy than smart business planning. Governor Jack Markell of Delaware thinks this mindset will soon change, and he hopes to galvanize that change with his blueprint, “A Better Bottom Line: Employing Individuals with Disabilities”.

Governor Markell talked with CEO of Walgreens, Greg Wasson, about his high percentage of employees with disabilities. Approximately 50 percent of employees at Walgreens distribution centers in Connecticut and South Carolina have some sort of mental or physical disability, and Wasson says it's no accident. Those centers perform as well as, if not better than, any other Walgreens facility. Markell also talked to Neill Christopher, vice president of Maryland company Acadia Windows and Doors. Christopher says that although he was at first reluctant to hire his first employee with a disability for fear that window manufacturing would pose too great a danger, he is now happy to report that six out of 60 employees have disabilities, and the company is operating more safely than ever. He also points out that, along with increased safety, his new employees make the company kinder.

Further, Computer Aid, Inc., an IT company, recently pledged to make people with autism three percent of their consultant base, and global software company, SAP, has also recognized that because of their focus and attention to detail, people with autism often excel at software testing.

After talking with company heads and seeing firsthand the gratitude and happiness of employed members of the disabled community, Markell teamed up with Governor Dennis Daugaard of South Dakota, who happens to be a CODA (child of deaf adults), to devise a blueprint that gives governors the necessary tools to increase employment within the disabled community. Markell says the real focus of the blueprint is on the ability and not the disability. (Three cheers for that!) He foresees the Department of Labor partnering with companies who are looking for employees with certain skills, disabled or not. It's what they are able to do that matters.

The blueprint also includes plans for better preparing youths with disabilities, hopefully encouraging employment and more independence through education and access to career opportunities and exploration.

Markell says the plan is a win-win. Employers will have qualified, specialized employees, and those employees will gain a certain sense of pride and fulfillment. Additionally, Markell notes that taxpayers also win as fewer people rely on benefits and join the workforce themselves.

I think the best part about this is that it seems so direct: the plan looks straight past disability and squarely at ability. That sounds like simple logic to me.

What do you think about this blueprint? Do you think it will catch on?