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Cities are difficult to navigate at the best of times, but for people with disabilities, they can be like an obstacle course and a maze wrapped into one.
A UK national travel survey found that adults with mobility difficulties took 39% fewer trips than those with no disability in 2017. Yet that could change as devices and cities grow smarter.
Assistive tech is playing a big role in the transformation. The global value of the industry is expected to increase from US$14 billion in 2015 to US$30.8 billion in 2024, according to Zion Market Research and Coherent Market Insights. Here are three high-tech solutions making cities easier for people with disabilities.
1. Smartphone-controlled wheelchair
Jose Di Felice, from Switzerland, was paralyzed in both legs and one arm after a high-speed motorcycle accident three years ago.
While adjusting to life in a wheelchair, he realised that stairs were his biggest hurdle. He took to YouTube to look for alternatives and discovered Scewo. The startup has built a wheelchair that can be controlled through a smartphone. It can tackle a range of terrains and has special rubber tracks for climbing stairs.
Di Felice requested a test drive and soon after he was climbing the steps of the local town hall in a wheelchair. 'It was really emotional to go up these stairs, and look down there and say that it's possible,' he says.
The wheelchair is expected to be distributed to users by the end of 2019, and Di Felice will be one of the first to receive the product.
'We cannot wait on having all these ramps built,' Bernhard Winter, the CEO and founder of Scewo, says of urban mobility. 'This is why we developed this product, so it gives you back mobility and freedom.'
2. A robotic exomuscle suit
Wearable tech is also becoming more sophisticated. Zurich-based start-up MyoSwiss has developed an exomuscle suit with a combination of robotics and textiles.
The robotic garment, weighing less than 5 kilograms (11 pounds), adds a layer of muscle that supports movements and provides stability to people with mobility impairments. It uses sensors at the knee and hip to detect movements the user wants to make and helps accordingly. 'It assists people that need extra force or extra assistance in their daily life,' says Jaime Duarte, CEO of MyoSwiss. '[It's] for people that can still walk to some extent but maybe struggle to stand out from a chair or struggle to go upstairs.'
This year the MyoSuit enabled two people with mobility limitations to take part in a relay version of the Zurich marathon.
3. Smart walking stick
Another technology that could transform lives is a smart walking stick designed by engineers from Young Guru Academy (YGA) in Turkey. The WeWalk stick has an ultrasonic sensor that detects obstacles above chest level and uses vibrations to warn the user. It can be paired with a smartphone to help navigation and is integrated with a voice assistant and Google Maps. According to the World Health Organization, 39 million people worldwide are blind and another quarter of a billion are visually impaired. 'In these days we are talking about flying cars,' says Kursat Ceylan, CEO and founder of WeWalk, 'but these people have been using just a plain stick.'
Ceylan, who has been blind since birth, says that connecting the stick to the Internet of Things and smart city solutions make it user-friendly. 'As a blind person, when I am at the Metro station I don't know which is my exit ... I don't know which bus is approaching ... [or] which stores are around me. That kind of information can be provided with the WeWalk,' he says.
But will these high-tech solutions be accessible?
'These are all really exciting initiatives that will make a huge difference to some people,' says Anna Lawson, the director of the Center for Disability Studies at Leeds University in the United Kingdom. 'But they are very expensive ... they're not going to be available to the vast majority of disabled people,' she added. Bryan Matthews, a lecturer at the Institute for Transport Studies at the University of Leeds, shares the concerns about cost. He says there should also be a focus on inclusive design. But anything that helps people navigate their environment is positive. 'By making disabled people more visible and more mainstream then you foster more potential for understanding and empathy,' says Matthews.