The New Normal: Uprooting Assistive Norms in 2018

The New Normal: Uprooting Assistive Norms in 2018

A new year is a time for new beginnings and starting things afresh. In the spirit of making a change, there’s a specific paradigm that needs to be addressed, or, as many in the industry would say, “disrupted.” Consider 2018 the year of “The New Normal” for the Assistive market. The New Normal is a term coined by our colleague, Abe Clark, in the United States.

By Laurie Paquet, Vice-President Assistive Technologies

The paradigm won’t change itself. That’s why we come to work everyday.

A narrow focus for too long

We’ve focused far too long on a single vision for individuals with limited mobility. The focus has always been on developing exceptional power wheelchairs. And, to be honest, we’ve done a great job. I look at companies such as Permobil or Sunrise, and feel confident that we’ve reached a level of mastery when it comes to the power wheelchair. Power wheelchair technologies have evolved far passed moving from Point A to Point B: autonomous navigation for improved safety, better cushions for comfort and stability, virtual seating coaches for more effective monitoring, and power leg rests for pressure relief and circulation. All of these technological advances have made staying in a power wheelchair for extended periods of time easier. But the next piece of the puzzle has been overlooked: what happens when an individual wants to reach for a glass of water? Or press a key on their keyboard? Or feed themselves? This is the type of everyday movement that we so often take for granted, that could make a world of difference for someone else, not to mention their family, support network, and therapists, to name a few.

The most inspiring part? With advancements in technology, this issue can be resolved through thoughtful collaboration among researchers, governments, businesses and, of course, end-users. Cultivating a unified ecosystem will help us achieve our goal in creating new technologies that can coexist with old technologies. An Occupational Therapist I have worked with for nearly a decade once described the relationship between a power wheelchair and additional technologies as “cohabiting” — both systems need to live peacefully in unison with one another to offer the end-user stability.

Challenges: Accessibility and adoption  

Kinova’s central product — JACO robotic arm — was built with individuals who have upper-body mobility limitations in mind — literally. Charles DeGuire took issue with the fact that his uncles, living with muscular dystrophy, couldn’t pick up a glass of water. And yet, scientists and engineers across the world were championing the development of technologies not linked to human empowerment in any way. We like to think of science that doesn’t think of human-benefit first as “bad science” — but we'll save that for another time.

One of our chief goals is to improve the accessibility of assistive robotics to people in need. But how can we get the product in the hands of end-users?

In order to do that, collaboration among multiple communities is key (this is an issue discussed at length by my colleague, Keith). In the assistive framework, specifically, engineers and scientists need to work hand-in-hand in their product development with therapists and end-users. One thing that I’ve noticed with both occupational and physical therapists is that early adoption is vital. This is especially true for individuals who have had a spinal cord injury; they are learning how to navigate their world in a new context. Not only does one have to change their entire physical space to fit a new reality, but they need to learn how to use their aid devices within that space. Often, adding a new piece of equipment — such as an arm — means shifting one’s current environment to adapt as well. Doing this twice is an impossible mountain to climb.  

The key is to rethink what’s possible from the very beginning of the rehabilitative journey: full mobility. Full mobility means movement of the upper and lower body. This is how we can help those in need achieve the extraordinary.

Calling for collaboration! Partnerships with end-users in mind

So, where do we go from here? If we always think of the end-user first, the answer is clear: therapists, power wheelchair providers, engineers, and scientists need to work together to find a solution that allows for more successful adoption rates. This is our challenge in 2018, and I call on you all to change the paradigm with me. Mobility, as of today, is a concept that does not isolate one physical capability from another. Mobility means all aspects of the individual cohesively integrating to attain independence.