By Kuma Chow
Growing efforts in disability-focused technologies are bearing fruit
My mom opened my eyes to the difficult world of wheelchair users. Her last months were spent on a bulky wheeled device, which was as restrictive as it was assistive.
Two years after her cancer diagnosis, our family became aware that she needed help to get around. Sidewalks, ubiquitous in urban areas, became daily obstacles. I began my search for better solutions, and was surprised by the wide variety of startups that are innovating in this area.
Make travel great again
Accessible tourism has been gaining momentum in the startup world. Airbnb is a prime example with its efforts to help people find accommodation that is wheelchair accessible. Suzanne Edwards, a wheelchair athlete and advocate who worked at Accomable [acquired by Airbnb in 2017] said: “Travel is something that can be pretty challenging when you have a disability.”
She recently announced the launch of a Facebook group called ‘Airbnb Adapted,’ which aims to transform the world of accessible travel by connecting people and enabling them to share travel stories and recommend unique, accessible activities. There will be regular features of accessible travel blogs, travel tips, and giveaways for fun travel perks.
The Robins is the Chinese answer to accessible travel. Launched in March 2017, it positions itself as the first accessible tourism agency in the country. Last April, it began a partnership with Locals, an online portal for Chinese bed and breakfasts, to remodel homes to fit the needs of disabled travelers.
Another rising star is Jiangsu-based Qitu Travel, which received EUR€200,000 in funding from Booking.com in May 2018 in support of its Access China project. The company’s founder Ji Xun has traveled to over 30 countries despite suffering from neuromuscular disorders.
The startup will focus on building a database for special needs travelers and accessible tourism service providers in its first stage and connecting them in the future. Xun also aims to introduce international accessible travel-related training and education in China.
Roll out artificial intelligence and robotics
Around the world, curb ramps aren’t being built fast enough, and many mobility device users would agree. To rectify the situation, early-stage American startup DeepWalk is developing an app with three-dimensional imaging and machine learning technology to streamline the assessment, cost estimation, and design processes for building curb ramps that adhere to the guidelines outlined by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Exoskeletons are the future when it comes to mobility device design. Ekso Bionics’s lead product, the EksoGT bionic suit, enables people with spinal cord injuries and hemiplegia to speed up their rehabilitation, giving them a greater chance of being able to walk again. According to the company’s Fourth Quarter 2018 Financial Results report, a total of 354 EksoGT units are being used around the world.
Don’t forget about the gym rats and shoppers
It would be a pity if efforts in promoting accessibility were not applied to everyday activities. For wheelchair users who love a good workout, Dutch brand Rolfix invented a gadget that can lock wheels firmly on the gym floor during weightlifting sessions and other exercises, which might be too strenuous for ordinary wheel brakes.
Keeping shoppers in mind, Shop Drop Roll Co-Founder Andrew Holmes designed a wheelchair attachment that enables users to store and access items like their groceries while remaining on their chair and without third-party assistance. The design, which was featured in Caitrin Lynch’s TEDx talk on design thinking, was conceived in one of Holmes’s class assignments, where students were asked to create a prototype for adults to improve an aspect of their life.
Novel designs are now being explored and prototyped, and the company is also considering incorporating electrical actuation into the device to benefit motorized wheelchair users.
Accessibility-focused startups are only one part of broader efforts to advance disability-tech around the world. Remarkable, Australia’s first disability-focused impact accelerator, is funding early-stage startups that are providing solutions for people living with disabilities, and their families and caregivers.
Remarkable’s first cohort includes Bookbot, a reading assistance app for those with learning disabilities; JobMatcher , an AI-enabled job platform that tackles low employment rates for people living with disabilities; NomadVR, a virtual reality experience for those without the means to go outside; and Our Care Journal, an app that helps caregivers organize their everyday care needs.
Such technologies are not just opening doors for people living with disabilities. They are opening minds and revealing the resourcefulness of the startup world.
About the Author
Kuma is a content specialist and freelance writer with a passion to change the world by informing and engaging others. She covers travel, sports, films, and tech, among others. Issues close to her heart include wheelchair accessibility and income disparity.