Is technology up to helping the disabled with problems of daily living?
Smart home devices and mobile apps have advanced and changed lives, but how far can they go to help persons with physical disabilities? The series Gadg(AID) finds out.
SINGAPORE: Every day, Tamimi Pohan battles to do things we think nothing of, like going to the toilet on his own.
Even the act of switching on the light at home is nigh impossible, as the switch is too high for him to reach. Having brittle bone disease means this 14-year-old must rely on a wheelchair for his daily activities.
His mother, Sarina Siregar, wishes he could be like any normal teenager. “I want him to be enjoying himself … like I see (with) other children,” she said.
More than anything, he wishes to be more independent. “I’ve thought of independence, but achieving it is quite far away,” he said.
Technology may have some solutions, the series Gadg(AID) discovers. Here are seven areas where existing technology, meant to bring convenience to the masses, could be tailored to bring independence to persons with physical disabilities, like Tamimi. (Watch it here.)
WATCH: Google Home changed my life: 14-year-old with brittle bone disease (5:47)
1. CAN’T SWITCH ON LIGHTS AND FANS WITHOUT HELP
Because of his condition, Tamimi sleeps in his parents’ room. He needs them or his helper to carry him onto his wheelchair. And he needs help with activities like switching on the lights and the fan.
The advent of voice-enabled technology, however, has opened up new possibilities for him in terms of accessibility.
Gadg(AID) enlisted the help of Cheryl Chiang, co-founder of smart home solutions provider Home-A-Genius, to fit his home out with voice-control devices and smart switches.
The firm also upgraded his iPad so that he could control the fan, the light switches and even adjust the brightness and colour of the lights.
“Now you don’t need to scramble for the remote control any more,” Chiang told him. “You can use your voice. You can use the app to control the devices in your house.”
She also automated the living room curtains so that he will be able to open or close them by shaking a smart cube controller.
“Every morning, I can switch on the lights by myself, and I can also switch the fan on and off,” he said. “It makes me feel independent.”
2. FLYING IS CHALLENGING
Tamimi previously spent four months creating artworks of his home, to show the public what life with his condition is like.
He was invited to showcase them in an exhibition in Bali, but travelling overseas for him is pretty daunting as a wheelchair user.
To help him, Gadg(AID) asked Eugene Soh, the founder of Dude Studios, to “transport” Tamimi to the exhibition by using virtual reality (VR) technology.
This creative tech studio has used VR to enable nursing home residents to explore the Great Wall of China.
For Tamimi, Soh flew to Bali to film a VR experience of the exhibition and even captured the way attendees responded to his works. Tamimi was able to view this with a pair of VR goggles.
He was entranced as he saw and heard the people commenting on his drawings.
“It helps me make it more realistic, and it makes me feel like I’m actually there,” he said. “My favourite part was the encouraging comments … It motivates me to do more artworks.”
3. DIFFICULTY REACHING FOR THINGS IN THE FRIDGE
Paralympian Yip Pin Xiu, who suffers from muscular dystrophy, or more specifically Charcot-Marie-Tooth — a disease that results in muscle weakness and atrophy — also lives with her family.
She reckons that when she moves out in future, she will face challenges using the kitchen and cooking her meals. For example, reaching for items high up in the fridge can be a struggle, since she is on a wheelchair.
The good news is that in recent years, manufacturers have made smart kitchens whereby appliances can be controlled remotely.
A smart fridge would allow her to see what is inside using a mobile app, instead of her having to go to the kitchen.
But some limitations remain. “I’ll only be able to use half the fridge because anything higher, I won’t be able to reach it,” she said.
4. HAVING TROUBLE TURNING THE OVEN KNOBS
Yip also lacks fine motor skills, so tasks that require a certain dexterity, like buttoning clothes, tying her hair and turning the knobs on an oven, are hard.
There are smart ovens, however, which Pin Xiu can control from her smartphone, allowing her to preheat, regulate and switch off the oven remotely.
So she need not fiddle with the knobs or enter and exit the kitchen multiple times during the cooking process. But even with these smart equipment, she still needs help with things like washing and chopping ingredients.
5. CAN’T GRIP HEAVY ITEMS
Yip often has problems gripping heavy or hot items. But a robotic glove could help her with her grip.
The EsoGlove was invented by local company Roceso Technologies to help stroke patients regain their grip strength during physical rehabilitation. It detects muscle signals and guides patients to move their fingers.
With the EsoGlove, she was able to hold a tumbler with one hand instead of two, which she usually uses.
While the EsoGlove is primarily used for therapy purposes, there are plans to develop a portable assistive glove more suitable for fine auto movements and daily use, said Roceso Technologies chief executive officer Jane Wang.
6. NOT ALL PAVEMENTS ARE WHEELCHAIR-FRIENDLY
Another problem Yip faces is that Singapore’s paths and streets can be challenging to navigate because of obstacles such as kerbs and uneven terrain. Some pavements are also too narrow for wheelchairs.
“One problem that I have with a newer place is that sometimes I go in with a lot of apprehension. I don’t know what I’m going to face,” she related.
To help wheelchair users like her, the tech project SmartBFA, or Smart Barrier Free Access, is developing a route-planning app that can locate barrier-free routes in Singapore.
The app uses colours to indicate pavement quality: Green for a smooth path; orange for an uneven one; and red for a bumpy ride.
After trying it out, Yip liked the idea of having such information on one’s smartphone and knowing which routes to take.
She thinks the app will be useful in encouraging people with disabilities to go out more often and explore more of Singapore.
“There’s still a bit of limitation in it. The general areas near the roads are well mapped … (but) I hope to see in future (more accessibility data on) the smaller routes, like inside the housing estates,” she said.
7. FEW SCHOOLS EQUIPPED WITH SMART TECHNOLOGY
Occupational therapist Manju Mohta at the Cerebral Palsy Alliance Singapore (CPAS) said any technology that “reduces manual effort” will benefit people with disabilities more than the able-bodied.
But only a few of Singapore’s 19 special education schools are equipped with some form of smart home technology.
So part of her job is to find technology that helps those with little control over their physical movement to triumph over their limitations.
One of her ideas for the CPAS School was a smart kitchen where students can work the lights and fans with their voice. With a limited budget of S$3,000, the kitchen was all the school could afford to fit out.
Assistive technology for people with disabilities can be expensive, but there are subsidies in Singapore. And Mohta is hoping to bring more change.
“They might not achieve 100 per cent independence, but when we see the shift from 100 per cent dependent to 30 per cent independent, they’re quite happy,” she said.
Watch this episode here. Gadg(AID) is telecast on Mondays at 9pm.