One of technology’s great strengths is evening the playing field. For speech pathologist Associate Professor Pammi Raghavendra, physiotherapist Associate Professor Belinda Lange and biomedical and rehabilitation engineer Dr David Hobbs, that’s why assistive technologies are an exciting field of creativity, problem solving and bringing together ideas of all shapes and sizes. They’ve each been finding ways to use technology to improve the lives of people with disability and injury.
In the ‘online world, you can be anyone.‘ It’s a place for social connections, sharing and learning, distraction, rehabilitation, escape and fantasy that appeals to the researcher in both Pammi and Belinda. For Pammi, it’s about connecting people with disabilities across the lifespan on social media. Everyone should have access to mainstream ways of communicating, if they want. She wants to make social media truly accessible for people with disabilities. How can they use it just like everyone else? Her work is individualised. She doesn’t go into a situation saying, ‘There are 1.32 billion daily users of Facebook, so we’ll teach you how to use that.’ Instead, she asks what the individual wants to learn—usually what their friends and family are using. Some want to upload photos to Instagram and others are focused on responding to instant messages. Pammi teaches them and connects them to any assistive technology they might need, like text-to-speech tools. She then measures the impact their new confidence and ability has on their social networks and lives—and it is having an impact.
Meanwhile, Belinda is using other existing technologies for young and old. With virtual reality headsets, she’s working with clinicians and consumers at the Women’s Children’s Hospital to distract children during minor medical procedures that, while not painful, can be extremely distressing for the child, their family and staff. She’s also looking into how technologies (from mobile phones to virtual reality) can be used to reduce loneliness and improve social connections for older adults living in community and residential aged care settings.
Pammi and Belinda are also working together, currently focused on co-supervising an honours project around using the Oculus Rift (it sounds like a Transformer, but it’s actually a virtual reality headset) for people with brain injury. The project is at the data gathering stage, using participant feedback to figure out what software might or might not be useful in the future. It combines Pammi’s expertise in working with assistive technologies and people with disabilities, as well as her connections at the Community Re-Entry Program, with Belinda’s experience in developing and evaluating virtual reality and video game technologies in the rehabilitation setting. The headset offers a 360 degree 3D space that can be used to practice everyday activities, which can be difficult for people with memory and cognitive issues caused by brain injury. Going into the supermarket and choosing between 20 types of milk can be quite overwhelming. With virtual reality technology, people with brain injury can practice first in a safe environment.
Assistive technology is about everyday life. How can people be employed, be able to have friends and lead a life that all of us lead? How can technology assist and enhance those opportunities? I think that’s what we feel very passionate about.
Science fiction writer William Gibson once said, ‘The future is already here; it's just not evenly distributed.’ We already have self-driving cars, computers that respond to voice, even thought-controlled technology (Did you know scientists have turned lights on and off with their minds? They’ve narrowed it down to just a 5-6 second delay). Technology is moving at such a fast pace, we’re at risk of leaving some people behind and potential uses untapped. When Belinda started her PhD in 2006, she knew what technology was coming 2-3 years down the track; now the lead time is more like 3-6 months. That also means that technologies become defunct much quicker and it’s harder to pick what is going to be useful in a few years’ time.
David is very familiar with those timelines, because he’s one of the people developing the new technologies. David invented the accessible gaming system known as OrbIT. It’s essentially a large, spherical controller designed for children with a hand impairment. The system only works when both hands are placed on the controller, which can be rolled around and pushed back and forth to play the games on the screen. OrbIT gives haptic feedback to the player during use; that is, the controller vibrates as events occur in the game, like hitting a wall. Proper and efficient use of the controller can only be accomplished when both hands work together—meaning the non-dominant hand is actively engaged and used. When David took OrbIT into the homes of children with cerebral palsy for his PhD project, he witnessed not only improvement in rehabilitation outcomes (i.e. better non-dominant hand functionality), he heard many ‘social’ accounts from the trial, such as a child speaking more than before because they were teaching their sibling how to play the games—scenes their parents had never witnessed before. He is also finding new applications for OrbIT, expanding trials into new populations such as people recovering from a stroke and people with Parkinson’s disease. Following the success of OrbIT, one of David’s colleagues, Associate Professor Sandy Walker, has conceptualised a new controller called i-boll to improve the manufacturing design, cost, scalability and ability to interact with commercial games.
Like his colleagues, David is driven by his desire to make a difference—particularly for those living with a disability—and believes collaboration between disciplines is vital. Before OrbIT, David and Pammi worked together to trial new software that uses gesturisation to play music called the virtual musical instrument (VMI). For people who can’t sit in front of or hold a musical instrument, their body can become the instrument. You use your hands, head—in fact, any body part—to make music. Even a slight movement can produce a musical note. David and Pammi tested the VMI with children between six and 18 years old with multiple disabilities—and the results were heartwarming. Just walking into the room, the children would get visibly excited in anticipation of the trial. In fact, it was so inspiring, David delivered a TEDx Talk on how technology can be an ‘enabler’ for people with impairments.
There’s so much potential for the use of technologies across a broad range of health and wellbeing areas and across such a broad population. There’s so much that we have yet to do and I think that’s the big driver for those of us working in the field.
Pammi, David and Belinda make a great team. They are brimming with ideas about how to work together, bringing their varied expertise and experiences to the same project. Just being in the same room, they are constantly learning from each other and looking at things in different ways. They share a common goal: using assistive technology to improve the quality of life and social participation of others. They want everyone to be able to communicate, connect, access the same spaces, move through life and enjoy the benefits of technology (including for just plain old fun). Access is much broader than ramps and lifts into buildings. It’s being able to walk into JB Hi-Fi, pull a product from the shelf, communicate with the staff about the product and be able to start using it—just like everyone else. It’s being able to enjoy the same entertainment and learn, share and connect with friends, family and strangers.
‘Nothing about us, without us’ is their motto. It’s hard to understand the challenges and social stigma of living with a disability, unless you have one. Pammi, Belinda and David all work closely with people with disability, listening to feedback and taking it on board at every stage. They also work regularly with clinicians and Belinda has the added bonus of being one herself. Belinda explains, ‘It is important to include the people who will be using the technology from the beginning and throughout the project.’ Without this consultation, it’s entirely possible for researchers to develop a really cool technology that isn’t useful or used by anyone.
‘Co-design’ is the buzzword around the place. When it comes to assistive technologies, it’s important to bring together end users, researchers from different disciplines, and clinicians. It’s not just about the technology alone; or the health knowledge; or how the end user wants to use it. Put them all together and you might get something worthwhile.
Assistive technologies bridge the gap of ability. There are speech generating devices, so people like Stephen Hawking can talk, or wheelchairs providing mobility. And then there’s rehabilitation and habituation to ensure someone can live and live well.
Flinders University is at the forefront of health technology—and Associate Professor Pammi Raghavendra, Associate Professor Belinda Lange and Dr David Hobbs all love training the next generation of researchers and industry leaders. Unique to Flinders is our four year Bachelor of Disability and Developmental Education and two year masters and PhD programs in disability. We are the only university to train developmental educators, like allied health professionals who can work with people with disabilities across the lifespan and across any setting. Part of this degree is a topic on technology and disability. We also have a number of biomedical degrees in engineering—starting with the Bachelor of Engineering (Biomedical) (Honours), in which David teaches. In fact, Flinders University was the first university in Australia to teach an accredited undergraduate biomedical engineering degree.
When Pammi, Belinda and David talk about their jobs, it’s not just the research that puts the light into their eyes. It’s mentoring others—often young people—who are similarly passionate about helping people through the use of health technology.
We teach rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology at Flinders University. I think we’re one of the only universities to bind it all together in terms of disability and research.
Associate Professor Pammi Raghavendra has a PhD in speech pathology from Purdue University, USA. She has been working with young people and adults with communication disabilities for over 30 years. Her current research focuses on investigating the impact of mobile and tablet technologies and social media use on communication and social networks of young people and adults with developmental or acquired disabilities. Associate Professor Raghavendra has international experience in disability through her studies and work in India, Singapore, the USA, Sweden and Australia.
Dr David Hobbs has undergraduate degrees in physics and biomedical engineering, and a PhD in rehabilitation engineering. He has extensive experience in both rehabilitation engineering and assistive technologies, and is currently a lecturer within the College of Science and Engineering and the Medical Device Research Institute. Dr Hobbs’s professional honours include being awarded a Churchill Fellowship, Fulbright Professional Scholarship in the field of rehabilitation engineering, and being named Engineers Australia’s Young Professional Engineer of the Year. His OrbIT project has been featured on Channel 7 News, Channel 10's 'Scope' TV program, and in Dr Hobbs’ TEDx Talk.
Associate Professor Belinda Lange holds a PhD in health science and undergraduate degrees in physiotherapy (Honours) and science. She worked at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies in 2006 to 2014 where she developed and evaluated virtual reality, gaming and digital technologies for a wide range of health applications. Her current research explores ways in which technology can enhance quality of life by identifying, developing and evaluating how new technologies can be applied in training, health/wellness and rehabilitation settings.
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