Technology-backed wheelchair modification is the new route towards making wheelchairs self-sustaining and dignified, writes Dr H S Chhabra, Medical Director & Chief of Spine Service at Indian Spinal Injuries Centre
Written By Dr H S Chhabra
When our eyes first come across a person sitting in a wheelchair, we often feel a pang of overwhelming sympathy and try our best to accommodate the occupant with the best of intentions. The lack of wheelchair friendly facilities and infrastructure in our nation, required to make the lives of these specially-abled people easier, can leave one quite red-faced and helpless at such a point.
In today’s time, there are millions of wheelchair occupants in India who suffer from the twofold consequences of unavailable spaces dedicated to wheelchairs in pavements, public places and buildings, and the absence of a low cost motorized wheelchair in the market. This is especially true for the rural and semi urban population which faces the financial constraints that prevents ownership of such a technological advancement, and also deals with uneven terrain making such an entity essential for survival.
However, a wheelchair doesn’t and shouldn’t symbolize dependence, agony and disability. With some technical and social support, a wheelchair occupant in our society can become much more independent and lead a dignified life. Afterall, they are free thinking intelligent individuals who like everyone else want to lead a life with purpose. The genius physicist, cosmologist Stephen Hawkings whose body has been severely affected by motor neuron disorder continues to enamour the world by his mental prowess, and theories about black holes and the expanding universe. A highly advanced technologically equipped wheelchair has been crucial in helping him lead a highly productive life despite the physical disability.
A number of small to major interventions can go a long way in helping individuals with disability lead independent and productive lives using technologically equipped wheelchairs that can not only be used as a transport mechanism but also be flexible enough to maneuver all areas of a house or a workplace, offer a greater adaptive driving experience and even personal mobility seating and positioning systems that make the experience more comfortable. For example, manual and electric wheelchairs and foam, gel and air cushions for proper seating.
Specialized computer software and equipment like adaptive keyboards, monitors and voice recognition programs are only few of the exciting technologies which can be explored. Ergonomic workstations and modifications for home and workplace with different environment control units for home, work and school can completely change the lifestyle of the individuals with disabilities. India can move towards finally becoming a disabled friendly nation through such initiatives.
This is not only an achievement that will reaffirm the scientific and technological prowess and advancement of the nation, but will also boost the human resource development by enhancing the standard of living and capabilities of these individuals.
Researchers internally are working on incorporating path-breaking technologies into the wheelchair. Designers have even conceptualized and put into development models of wheelchairs that can climb stairs, move at faster speeds to allow the users faster transport, be adjustable into public transport systems and enable the users travel easily to and fro from work.
Approximately 65 million wheelchairs are needed worldwide, and those in less-resourced environments, such as India, are faced with the difficult challenge of accessing devices that can provide functional mobility for an affordable price. Unfortunately, efforts have not addressed the needs of people who would benefit from appropriate wheelchairs, and low-cost western style devices are beginning to crowd the market despite the fact they perform poorly, fail prematurely, and in some cases have been discontinued in the western markets.
Though some such services are available in India as well, cost remains an obstacle that prevents many from availing them. In this context, the Department of Assistive Technology of Indian Spinal Injuries Centre is working with the University of Pittsburgh, USA closely for transferring the latest technology in the field to the Indian settings.
A recent example of this collaboration is the low cost motorised wheelchair, ISIC-LOCOMO . ISIC has partnered with the Ministry for the People with Disabilities in order to bring the vehicle to India, and remodel it according to Indian needs & terrain. At a relatively low and affordable cost of Rs. 45000 as compared to the imported motorised wheelchairs (which cost a whooping 1.5 lakh), ISIC-LOCOMO boasts of a unique suspension system to accommodate Indian environment conditions. It also features a 360 degree joystick controller and rechargeable battery to ensure ease of operation and has a light weight and easy-to-fold and assembling consistency to enable portability.
This will result in the fulfillment of the dream of both the organizations in helping people with disabilities to lead self-reliant lives, with the help of technology and modifications.
It is high time that we stop feeling sorry for these victims of unfortunate circumstances, and instead empower the people with disabilities by enabling them to live a life of independence and self-sustenance. After all, this effort is a very small price to pay to restore the dignity of the disabled, and can only bear the sweetest of fruits for the nation in the future.