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Towards low-tech, high-value solutions for disabilities

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A wheelchair designed by Amos Winter, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student.
A wheelchair designed by Amos Winter, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student.

Vijaysree Venkatraman

Cleverly designed, locally made mobility devices can help people with disabilities get around and do more — not become charity cases

“Watch out for falling legs,” Amos Winter, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduate student, warns. Heeding that unusual warning, this writer gingerly settles into a low wheelchair in the basement studio. The legs in question are prosthetic limbs of rubberised material. This is the Mobility Lab, M-Lab for short, a workshop for an MIT undergraduate course of the same name.

Students use this space to design mobility aids for the population with disabilities in developing countries. Mr. Winter teaches wheelchair design; Goutam Reddy, a recent MIT graduate, focuses on artificial foot design.

“This course is a great way to apply theoretical principles taught in mechanical engineering classes to help people around the world,” says Mr. Winter. Mr. Reddy and Mr. Winter have a common mentor: MIT Lecturer Amy Smith.

Simple solutions

In 2004, Ms. Smith won the MacArthur Fellowship for creative uses of simple technology to solve everyday problems of the developing world. True, the knowhow to tackle these challenges already exists in some of these countries. India, for instance, has its Indian Institutes of Technology, says the 45-year-old mechanical engineer. “But typically, solving low-tech problems brings little academic prestige,” she adds. That could be one reason why engineers from such institutes often shy away from the more mundane design challenges.

Coming up with elegant solutions and affordable products for the underserved in the developing world requires some resources, and more important, tremendous resourcefulness. Although labour is typically cheap, materials contribute significantly to the product cost in these countries, says Ms. Smith. Some high-tech tools and supplies are simply not available. “You can’t use titanium to make wheelchair parts in Tanzania,” says Mr. Winter, wryly.

Accidental altruist

Two years ago, this accidental altruist picked a project in Tanzania, mainly to be with his girlfriend. But that summer spent in assessing mobility aids transformed him. First, Mr. Winter discovered, Africa did not have enough wheelchairs. Manoeuvring imported machines inside buildings remained an arduous task; the devices did not handle the rough surfaces of the roads too well either. When they fell apart, they could not even be repaired locally.

The M-lab mantra is simple: cleverly designed, locally made mobility devices0 can help the physically challenged get around and do more – not become charity cases. This semester, students made prototypes of wheelchair attachments: a tow-cart to haul medium-size loads, a small fold-out table to display products at the market or, in the case of schoolchildren, the ability to do homework sitting upright.

For Mr. Reddy, who teaches prosthetic design, the work is cut out. The Jaipur foot, an indigenous prosthetic made in India, costs little and lets the wearer – someone who has had an amputation below the knee, for instance – do a variety of things: walk on two feet, ride a bike, climb a tree or execute Bharatanatyam steps.

Yet, more can be done to make this artificial leg an efficient prosthetic – particularly for above-the-knee amputees, he points out. Engineers can also provide expertise in making foot braces for the polio-affected.

Little time for research

Since its inception in 1975, the Jaipur Foot Organisation (JFO) has helped at least a million patients. The very volume of work, however, leaves this charity — the world’s largest provider of prosthetics — with little time for research and development. “Computer modelling to design artificial legs is not too expensive, but it does require highly-trained experts,” says Mr. Reddy, whose specialty is biomechatronics. This fall, he will start life as a medical student.

Fitting those who have had amputations with customised legs is a complex process. In the last decade, the Centre for International Rehabilitation and the JFO co-developed a rapid fitting system to make moulds of missing limbs. Instead of the traditional plaster of Paris, which shrinks as it dries, this process uses sand or polystyrene beads.

Overall, the system produces a better fit, but it runs on electricity. Last year, MIT students designed a hand-cranked pump and made other modifications to streamline the process. Now, the portable device can be used even in remote camps without a bulky generator, says Mr. Reddy.

Popular courses

These courses are immensely popular. At the beginning of the semester, there is a lottery to decide who will get into M-lab and Ms. Smith’s class.

“Today, the world needs not one, but a hundred such labs,” says development guru Paul Polak, author of the recent book Out of Poverty. Ideally, at least half of these labs should be located in the developing countries where millions need inexpensive technology to improve the quality of their lives, he adds.

Each semester, about 60 MIT students take a hands-on approach to a practical problem from the Third World. Over school break, some travel abroad with their prototypes. “You can only go so far with designing a product before you field-test it,” says April Watchel, an M-lab student who will bring her group’s wheelchair design to Sinaloa, Mexico, this summer.

Five dozen students on a short school-sponsored trip cannot end global poverty, but their earnest efforts demonstrate that low-tech problems in the developing world are challenges worthy of any serious engineer’s time. While that simple realisation may not be enough to save the world, it could be one step forward for sustainable technology.


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