3D printing lets the disabled take control

A young man with cerebral palsy customises his apps with only neck movements, a woman who can move just one finger uses a personalised joystick to control her wheelchair, and a man with a customised bionic eye sees better.

For people living with disabilities, the future is about customising their devices, according to Craig Smith, education consultant at Autism Spectrum Australia.

Nineteen-year-old Christopher Hills has cerebral palsy and quadriplegia, and has control only over his neck muscles. Instead of a joystick, his head movements operate a large button (or switch) on his wheelchair.

All his keyboard and mouse functions can be accessed through the use of this single head switch. And Switch Control, an accessibility program built into Apple devices, allows Hills to access apps and set up his devices the way he likes them.

Hills runs his own business, Switched-On Video Editing, from his home office in the hinterland of the Sunshine Coast. He has just finished making a film for the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) website using iMovie and Final Cut Pro.

“Chris edits films with his neck,” said Smith. “It’s incredible. Film software can be tricky to use, and editing often requires fine movements with the cursor.”

On the NDIS project, Hills was the producer, director and editor. He used Final Cut Pro X.

“As you might imagine, controlling everything with one switch is not quite as efficient as it would be to use my keyboard, but Final Cut Pro X is the fastest editor I have come across, so that compensates for the slowness of the switch,” he said.

“I often feel as though I’ve jumped straight into the deep end of life, (but) I’m loving the opportunity to make a difference.”

Hills customises editing to suit his speed and rate of response, to make it a more natural fit for him rather than someone else’s idea of what he needs.

“The impact on Chris is life-changing,” Smith said. “It’s not just a matter of him being able to get a job, but getting a meaningful job that he wants to do. That’s the crux of it for people living with disabilities: getting work that suits not only their skill set but is also closer to their passions.”

Meanwhile, for people with profound vision loss, a customised bionic eye can help them recover some vision by electrical stimulation of the retina using a retinal implant consisting of an array of electrodes, said Associate Professor Nick Barnes, research group leader for Smart Vision Systems at CSIRO’s Data61.

“The implants communicate to a small head-mounted camera so they can see the world in shades of grey,” he said. “The implant can be calibrated according to their particular vision circumstances: for example, how many points of light and the range of different visual levels of brightness that someone can see.”

A more mainstream technology for customisation is 3D printing. Printing wheelchair joysticks, for example, is popular because it takes so long to order them, said Melissa Fuller, co-founder of Sydney based AbilityMate, which creates 3D printed customised devices for people living with disabilities.

Fuller cited the example of a woman with a quadriplegic form of cerebral palsy using a wheelchair that costs $35,000. The problem was it comes with a standard joystick.

“She finds it hard to keep her hands still,” Fuller said. “It’s hard for her to drive the wheelchair because it’s not suited to her hand movements. The middle finger is the only movement she has. In about two hours with rapid prototyping, we 3D printed a joystick for her. The materials cost 37ยข. The waiting list for a modification of the original device was six months at a cost of $1000.”

Another toggle was designed to be like an Atari joystick for a young man who used to play a lot of Atari before his brain injury.

To read the rest of this article, published in The Sydney Morning Herald, please click here.