Integrative innovations
© Getty
September 2019

Integrative innovations

Living with a disability entails major challenges – modern technology can assist in managing them. But even people not challenged by disabilities can benefit from such innovations.

​The mechanic Guiseppe Pellegrino Turri fell in love with the beautiful Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzano. They wrote love letters to each other but the lady suffered from progressive blindness. Her handwriting became illegible. Turri wanted to continue reading her letters, so at the beginning of the 19th century he designed a machine consisting of keys and metal bars to which characters were attached. When the countess depressed a key one of the bars would hit a piece of paper – the first typewriter had been invented. And as is commonly known, the typewriter would eventually evolve into the keyboard that today makes it possible for us to type text electronically at high speed and to operate a computer. Other sources assume that the countess’ brother invented the machine to help his blind sister and that Turri merely improved it. No matter which version we choose to believe, history is full of technical achievements that had their origins strictly in the desire to help people challenged by disabilities. From transistors to scanners and touchscreens to audiobooks – they all were invented for people with special needs and later evolved into mainstream products. Even today, there are developments for challenged people that provide the basis for forward-thinking technologies.

Integrative innovations© Peter Wehowsky

​​The possibility of driving a car is still essential to remaining mobile, especially in rural regions

Constantin Grosch
Without a car, no job, no activities

To drive a car, Constantin Grosch from Hameln, Germany, uses a technology called drive-by-wire that enables him to operate the steering wheel in spite of an impaired arm function. “The possibility of driving a car is still essential to remaining mobile, especially in a rural region like the one I live in,” says the wheelchair user who drives his automobile while sitting in his electric wheelchair. For him, he says, driving is a basic prerequisite for taking part in social life: “Without this opportunity I wouldn’t be able to engage in any professional, volunteer or recreational activities on a continuing basis in my region.” The technology Constantin Grosch uses is supplied by Paravan, a company specializing in conversions and modifications for disabled people. However, the technology is no longer only of interest to people with disabilities because the future market of self-driving cars requires this key technology for autonomous vehicles. These automobiles particularly depend on safe and highly reliable actuators such as steering functions. That’s why Schaeffler in 2018 entered into a joint venture with Paravan in order to be able to use this technology in its small and agile Schaeffler Mover vehicle concept, among other things.

Challenged people have covered more than a billion kilometers using Paravan’s drive-by-wire system. In a joint venture with Schaeffler, the technology is now making its way into autonomous vehicles

The technology also makes everyday life easier for Christian Bayerlein from Koblenz, Germany. His arm and hand functions are severely impaired and he uses an electric wheelchair. The IT professional has personally optimized or simply modified many of his technical aids. By means of a mini joystick, he operates his smartphone via a Bluetooth-mouse module that’s integrated in his wheelchair. In addition, he has integrated a wired receiver with a web interface into his system. “It often happens that I’d like to solve a problem and then take a look at what’s possible with technology.” The front door of his house is opened by a smartlock called Nuki for which he has written a web interface, so that he can open the door from his PC using voice recognition. “All the smarthome technology has its origins in the disability sector and has now been modified for the mass market,” says Bayerlein.

Integrative innovations© Björn Lubetzki

​All the smarthome technology has its origins in the disability sector

Christian Bayerlein

Even so, Bayerlein doesn’t feel that technology is a cure-all. “Better technology must not keep society from creating accessibility,” he says. He views nurse robots and so-called exoskeletons designed to enable paralyzed people to walk with skepticism as well. “In some cases, it takes my personal assistants years to learn how to effectively help me without causing me pain and to seat me in stable and comfortable ways,” he explains. An assistant needs to know exactly how to handle him, for instance when lifting him into a wheelchair. “I also feel that the human factor is important, I’d miss that in a nurse robot.” Exoskeletons, he feels, are a hype. “For some people and for some applications, they may be great, but they also strike me as being somewhat of a normative fetish,” Bayerlein says.

Up and down stairs in a wheelchair

A development from Switzerland inspires much greater enthusiasm with him. Scewo is an all-new concept of an electric wheelchair that’s planned to be delivered to its first customers before the year is out. Scewo, for one, is able to operate on stairs, which is definitely practical in non-accessible environments. But that’s not even the main thing that thrills Christian Bayerlein about the Swiss vehicle. Above all, he’s taken with its stylish design: “This wheelchair doesn’t have any kind of medical look. To me, that’s truly innovative.”

The styling of the wheelchair, he feels, truly has to do with inclusion because disabled people want to be “cool” too. He’d like to be able to identify with his wheelchair and that’s simply the case with Scewo. That’s also why he could imagine that this wheelchair at some point in time would not just be used by disabled people, but simply as a means of moving around by anyone who’d rather sit than walk. In the light of an increasingly older population, he feels that this would definitely be conceivable. And in that case, another invention for challenged people would have morphed into a mainstream product for everyone.

Apps for the blind

Seeing AI – a vision aid based on the smartphone
Since it was invented, the smartphone has become the number one aid for blind people. With its “Seeing AI” app, Microsoft has created kind of a Swiss Army Knife for blind and low-vision users. The app uses artificial intelligence to read signs or documents. It recognizes barcodes and persons if they’ve previously been stored in it. It’s able to classify money and describe scenes in photographs. In addition, it serves as a color recognition system and is able to convert light intensities into sound: the brighter the environment the higher the pitch. The app is able to issue all this information within a matter of milliseconds and, as a result, has become an important tool for visually impaired people in everyday life.

Integrative innovations
Artificial eye: the “Seeing AI” app translates images into speech© Microsoft

Aira – the airport navigator
Visually impaired people having to find their way around airports used to practically always require on-site assistance in order to find their departure gates or the security checkpoints. The app “Aira” uses artificial intelligence (AI) and remote assistance (RA) to help visually impaired people to orient themselves in places like airports or with other challenging everyday situations. Users are connected to specially trained staff, who via the smartphone camera or a set of camera glasses are able to see what’s happening around the user. They can point out the way or assist with other problems.

Integrative innovations
Schaeffler employee Gerd Goesswein (center) accepts the certificate from AfB© Schaeffler
Double benefit

Schaeffler supports environmental protection and inclusion with used IT hardware and was presented with a certificate of appreciation for its socio-economic commitment from AfB (Work for People with Disabilities). The reason behind this recognition was Schaeffler’s donation of 8,970 IT devices, particularly PCs, notebooks, and flatscreen monitors to AfB last year. Most of the hardware removed from the company’s inventory was still fully functional, and more than 83 percent of the devices were directly marketed on to other users. With notebooks the rate was even 96 percent. Defective devices were dismantled and turned over to certified recycling companies. Due to the cooperation between Schaeffler and AfB, 611,478 kilos (1,348,078 lb) of iron equivalents, 442,108 kilos (974,681 lb) of CO2 equivalents, and 1,362,718 kWh of energy were saved, the latter equating to an annual average electric power consumption of 648 two-person households. Since 2008, Schaeffler has been working together with Europe’s largest non-profit IT organizations in that they turn over to AfB used hardware provided to them for data erasure, refurbishing, and resale. The economic recycling of the equipment avoids electronic waste and saves natural resources. In addition, the partnership with Schaeffler makes it possible for AfB to come closer to reaching its long-term goal of creating 500 jobs for people with disabilities.

Christiane Link
Author Christiane Link
Journalist Christiane Link grew up in the German states of Rhineland-Palatinate and Hesse before studying political science at Hamburg University. Today, she lives in London and calls herself a geek. She enjoys trying out new technologies and regards her wheelchair as an accessory. As a child she had one of the first colored wheelchairs on the market that were supplied that way by the manufacturer.