Disrupt Disability Hackathon

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Christina Lee, is 25, has SLE and paraplegia and is currently doing a funded PHD in Literature at King’s College London. She took part in our Moving Up employability project and is currently one of our employment ambassadors. She blogs about attending a Disrupt Disability event on customisable wheelchairs, a company she started volunteering with through our project.

A few weeks ago I attended a Hackathon at Disrupt Disability. Disrupt Disability is working to create a modular system for wheelchairs that is customisable and affordable, using open-source design and 3D printing technology. At this Hackathon, wheelchair users and engineers came together to look at innovative ways of designing powered wheelchairs using to solve some of the problems that users currently face.

As a manual wheelchair user, I have little to no knowledge of power wheelchairs, so the Hackathon was a real eye-opener for me. Once, while with friends in powerchairs I remember being asked by someone who doesn’t use wheelchairs whether I have ‘chair envy’, presumably because they assumed that a power chair is ‘better’ than a manual one. I laughed; the question is kind of like asking a cyclist whether they envy motorcyclists because they are faster – it doesn’t make sense.

Every wheelchair user has different needs, preferences, and lifestyles, and the wheelchair must meet these needs. My friend had a powerchair because she needed it, I don’t because my condition is different and fits better with a manual chair.

More than just medical equipment, a wheelchair is an extension and expression of the person. The right wheelchair is vital for a quality of life, independence, and dignity. As Clare Gray from Shaw Trust, who uses a powerchair, points out at the Hackathon, her wheelchair enables her to go to work, walk her dog, and do all the things she wants to do. But it comes with its own limitations. Her powered chair can’t fit into black cabs because of its weight and height, and there are many restrictions on electric wheelchairs on aeroplanes. Maintaining a wheelchair is also difficult, since she has to rely on specialist engineers to fix any problems with batteries, controls, or punctured tyres. Even replacing broken headlights can cost a hundred pounds.

Steve Cox, a professional engineer with years of experience in the automotive industry, adds that whereas cars are now lighter, ‘sexier’, and ‘smarter’ than ever, powered wheelchairs have remained largely bulky, heavy, and unaffordable. There is very little room for customisation or personalisation of powered wheelchairs and users like Clare don’t get to choose how they want the wheelchair to look or function.

So at the Hackathon, wheelchair users teamed up with engineers to find solutions to some of the problems Clare spoke about. One group tackled the question of getting wheelchairs onto difficult terrains like sandy beaches with the idea of inflatable/deflatable tyres that could expand when needed to increase the surface area in contact with the sand and allow the user to propel on the beach. Another looked at a motorised detachable suitcase for wheelchairs, linked to a smartphone. In my team, we thought of ways to convert a manual wheelchair into a powered chair, drawing on my own personal experiences of using a power-assisted device that could propel the wheelchair when needed. We discussed where the batteries and motor would fit, and how a wheelchair user could control the motor, for example by sensors on the wheel rim linked to an app on the phone. It was very encouraging to hear about all these fantastic ideas and I look forward to seeing them come to life in the future.

To find out more about Disrupt Disability and Hackathons, visit their webpage and follow them on Twitter and Instagram. To find out more about Moving Up, visit our webpage or contact Isabel Baylis on i.baylis@musculardystrophyuk.org

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