15 August 2019

Redesigning assistive mobility devices to function in challenging environments and limited-resource settings

According to the World Health Organization, 15% of the world’s population lives with one or more disabilities, with an overwhelming majority (approximately 840 million) in developing countries. Disability can increase the likelihood of poverty, decrease the likelihood of access to education for children, and worsen the existing gender inequalities, making women more vulnerable to abuse. In order to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 1: No poverty, SDG 3: Good health and well-being), issues that affect the world’s most vulnerable populations such as those with disabilities must be addressed. 

Unfortunately, a number of factors are prohibiting people with disabilities in the developing world from receiving the support that assistive technologies can provide. To date, the assistive technology research and development has focused on the development of high-end, state-of-the-art devices that can be commercialized at premium prices for consumers in developed countries and neglects the needs of disabled populations in low-resource settings. Furthermore, the available options are inappropriately designed for the environmental specification of users in the developing world and cannot seamlessly traverse the terrain conditions characteristic to the user’s settings and obtained devices are often abandoned at a high frequency.

Providing a low-tech and cost-effective alternative to traditional assistive devices could help the disabled in developing countries gain independence from families and allow them to participate in the job market. In this context, professor Suzana Brown from SUNY Korea is leading a research project addressing the need for affordable assistive devices with an acceptable level of efficacy in design.

One of the initial aims is creating a simple, affordable, and universal tech solution that could enhance the manual crutch or cane in order to improve their performance and be compatible with existing conditions of infrastructure and terrain in developing countries. The suggested design draws on bionics (biologically inspired engineering) and operates well on unpaved, uneven and soft ground, accommodates rock up to 20 mm, and provides improved stability for the user. Another goal is to explore alternative designs for the handle and underarm portion of the crutch that would be more elastic yet stable. Professor Brown’s research is centered on humanitarian technologies with a particular emphasis on medical applications in limited-resource settings.