Affordable & Accessible–3D Printing Proves to Be a Realistic Technology for Helping the Disabled


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If you’ve experienced the magic of making an intricate jewelry design, or creating a product like a toy with multiple working parts and gears, and then have seen it come to fruition via the convenience and downright beauty of a 3D printer, whirring away confidently—then you may be one of those who found a new hobby that is life changing. You may be an architect or engineer who has found a way to elevate prototyping to an entirely new level, invigorating and refreshing the way you go about working on projects today, whether in a team or alone.

In these cases, new technology is able to enhance your talents as well as maybe earn you a wonderful raise too as you wow clients with a model that shows them exactly how that new construction or complex bridge project will proceed and look in the end. The 3D printer becomes a luxurious and fun new tool.  Now, imagine if you could use take that tool to an even more personal level, changing the lives of individuals who have gone without for nearly their whole lives, due to a number of disabilities. Imagine, if suddenly your world opened up, allowing you independence and downright joy as you were able to manipulate controls from your wheelchair, using a customized joystick or buttons, and even be a part of the conversation in helping to create much-needed designs.

At the Boston Home in Massachusetts, residents are enjoying the benefits of a 3D printer busy pumping out new designs and objects that increase their quality of life and allow them to do things they could not do previously. This 3D printer, operated there by Don Fredette, the adaptive equipment specialist, allows—as a start—for items like customized wheelchair joysticks, control knobs, and cup holders. These ‘luxuries’ are not always covered by insurance and often require customized building as they simply aren’t offered anywhere. These are also the types of things most of us just expect—a way to steer our movement—and certainly enjoying cup holders galore. These go under the category of ‘all those things we take for granted.’ While it may seem to be a lot of trouble to go to, these are accents that can indeed make all the difference for the disabled.


Don Fredette using the 3D printer at The Boston Home. [Photo: The Boston Home]

The Boston Home has been using their MakerBot Replicator 3D printer—thanks to a generous donation—for three years now, and Fredette says that he has a way now to keep up with the patients there whose needs and ability levels change on a constant basis. He has come up with some incredible tools for them, even allowing for the residents to engage in activities like painting with a watercolor paintbrush he 3D printed. The design is integrated into a mouth stick which allows the user to adjust the paintbrush in terms of proximity to the face, and create artwork hands-free. According to Fredette, at least one person at the Boston Home is now able to attend art classes.

“This is not complicated,” says Fredette, who largely taught himself both printing and design. “This isn’t a prosthetic. It isn’t high-tech… but it’s making a huge difference for the person.”

The patients agree heartily, if Farzin, a resident with MS is any indication. The 53-year-old man can now enjoy much greater independence now thanks just to his 3D printed cup, notepad, and remote control holder for his wheelchair. These items have allowed him to enjoy being more social and self-reliant.

“Basically, I don’t need anybody to help me all the time,” Farzin says. “They dress me and put me in the chair in the morning, and they don’t see me until lunch time. And then they don’t see me until after dinner when I go to bed.”

Fredette has also made 3D printed items like:

  • Cradles for voice-controlled television remotes
  • Chin switches for calling aids
  • Holders for communication devices like phones and tablets
  • Cell phones

What may seem like basic items allowing for basic skills are actually expanding the world of the disabled substantially, as the more they branch out with tools, the more they are to avoid isolation and darkness on a daily basis. The hope is that with greater ease in mobility and communication they can take care of themselves as well as even branch out into employment opportunities.

Social interaction is where much of positive progress begins for the disabled, according to Kelly Buckland, executive director of the National Council on Independent Living. She sees new technology that makes a change in ‘structural problems’ that allow for more independence in the disabled to be crucial for their advancement. Growing independence helps with major issues such as finding jobs, transportation, and affordable housing. With under 20% of the disabled working, obviously they find it difficult to pay bills and many are living in poverty, unable to pay rent or afford the basic needs in life without help from government programs and assisted living.

How does 3D printing fit in to making life better all around? The greater access that the disabled have to devices making daily life easier, the more likely they are to increase their social interactions. It’s obvious too that their input is needed to figure out what would help the most as well.

“We need a way that [disabled] people are automatically part of the discourse, and it’s very hard to do,” says Gregor Wolbring, associate professor in community rehabilitation and disability studies at the University of Calgary. “There are all kinds of issues but I think we have to start with that.”


The lining of the Haptic Chair allows for the blind to experience visual cues during conversation.

Allowing for the disabled to participate in social interactions translates into the use of some of the more complex technologies we mentioned earlier, as well, and a new program at Arizona State University’s Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing is offering some incredible benefits too for the blind in allowing them to receive nonverbal cues. They are achieving this with a unique device that allows for data to be transmitted through the lining of a chair. While it may look like a normal desk chair, it actually has a USB port in it where a computer and webcam can be plugged in. With this system, a blind person can actually communicate through facial recognition because the system conveys to the user, who is blind, what types of facial expressions the person they are talking to is having—whether happy or neutral—or even surprised. All of this is communicated from the chair’s lining.

Users like Brian Duarte, who has been blind for 12 years, are able after years of being in the dark regarding facial cues in communication, to know when someone is conveying a happy response in conversation.

“I was very good at reading people’s body language, their nonverbal language,” Duarte says. “To not have access to that information now, it makes things pretty difficult in social situations… without those social cues, you don’t know if someone is looking at you, if you have their attention. You don’t know if you maybe offended them. You don’t know if they’re smiling, if they’re engaged.”

The Haptic Chair allows for patterns to be transmitted as the mouth moves. A neutral look, for example, is transmitted as there is no movement in terms of a smile or a frown. The chair vibrations move in a straight line. For a smile, a U-shape vibrates on the users back. The result is that a user like Duarte is able to experience greater emotional health through more comprehensive communication. This is a basic human need—and researchers find that emotional well-being correlates directly with better physical health as well.

Other items are being used for communication like Google Glass. Samson Cheung, director of the Multimedia Information Analysis Lab at the University of Kentucky in Lexington is working on using this technology to help those with autism, through an app that will allow for better maintenance of eye contact. It helps the users—with all ranges of autism—to maintain visual contact with cues that allow them to know how they are doing. The challenge is that more complex items like Google Glass and the Haptic Chair are not generally accessible or affordable.

In a world suddenly barraged by robotic devices, virtual and augmented reality, and a host of extremely expensive and complicated tools, 3D printing has become not only a tool for making and enhancing some of those designs themselves, but it offers a way to make a wide range of items for the disabled while offering a substantial list of benefits—to include mind-blowing customization, self-sustainability in creating and making, speed and quality in manufacturing—and best of all, affordability like we’ve never seen before.

While technological progress can’t happen without exploration of a variety of programs and accompanying devices and applications, 3D printing is now a realistic solution and in many cases, a better one over traditional methods for bringing many inventions to fruition. It’s also allowing for the fabrications of parts and objects that simply would not have been possible before. Programs like that ongoing at the Boston Home are a perfect example. How do you think technology can further benefit the disabled, helping them to be more independent? Discuss over at in the Boston Home & 3D Printing forum thread.

[Source: Nova Next; Dorchester Reporter]

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