Thursday, October 29, 2009

UPDATE: Chris Waddell Takes On Mt Kilimanjaro

When Chris Waddell began his ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro he expected to become the first paraplegic to climb the 19,340-foot mountain unassisted. He planned to summit on his 41st birthday and to gather footage to create a documentary film of his adventure to help break down the barriers between able-bodied and people with disabilities and show what is possible. While he missed summitting on his birthday, and required assistance for a very short stretch of the upper mountain, he came to a new realization about the barriers he had created in his own life.

“I climbed the vast majority under my own power but I realize now that to even remotely think of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro unassisted is ridiculous,” Chris said from his home in Park City, Utah.

Chris began his ascent of the tallest freestanding mountain in the world on September 24, accompanied by his team of climbers, porters, and a camera crew. Tajiri, a former porter who had lost his leg in a rockslide while climbing in Mt. Kilimanjaro 2006, was once again climbing the mountain with the new prosthesis Chris’s One Revolution Foundation had given him.

The first few days went as planned as Chris cycled up to 10 hours a day with his custom-made, 36-gear hand cycle known as “Bomba.” On day five, he reached 18,000 feet and despite not summitting that day as planned, he considers it his greatest day on the mountain.

“I pedaled all day long, climbed 2,000 vertical feet, and didn’t fatigue,” he says. “It amazed me.”

To make it up the scree field below Gillman’s Point—a spot on the rim of the mountain’s volcanic crater at 18,638 feet that for some is accepted as a successful climb—Chris used a winch that allowed him to climb a fixed rope. To stay motivated, he counted pedal strokes, and when he tired of that, he focused on individual rocks that were 10 to 12 feet away. It took hours to climb the approximately 200-foot rope.

“Sometimes I wondered if I could make it 20 feet,” he said. “I was going so ridiculously slow and thought that this must be what it is like to drown within reach of shore.”

At that point Chris encountered an unexpected obstacle to summitting solely under his own power—a boulder field that turned out to be insurmountable without assistance. Chris finally had to admit that despite two years of preparation he couldn’t climb the entire mountain unassisted with his current system.

“I felt conflicted,” says Chris, who had kept a single-minded focus to climb the entire 29.2-mile trail under his own power. “I had done so much work and yet I faced something completely impassable. It was a difficult decision.”

In deciding to ask for help, Chris began to learn what the mountain had to teach him.

“It’s challenging for me to ask for help, partly in reaction to the injury and partly due to the disability,” says Chris, who broke his back in a ski accident when he was 20 years old and became the most decorated male skier in Paralympic history. “You don’t want to seem needy.”

On September 30, after pedaling over approximately 500,000 revolutions, Chris shifted out of first gear for the first time in three days and pedaled easily the few hundred yards to the summit. Tajiri summited for the second time in two days, becoming the first Tanzanian leg amputee to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro.

“Tajiri seemed a lot more confident than I’d seen him before,” Chris says. “Seeing him become whole again was amazing.”

Chris now has a new perspective on climbing mountains, both literally and figuratively.

“Part of the reason you climb a mountain is to learn something you wouldn’t have learned otherwise,” he says. “Now I realize that focusing on being independent is another way of drawing a wedge between you and the people around you. The glory of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro was really a collective team effort.”

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Honda's Stride Assist System

Honda continues its foray into walking assist systems with the "Stride Assist System" that debuted recently at the Tokyo Motor Show. It is not quite clear what this device's intent is for: it could be used for the elderly or for those with difficulty walking long distances. Anyways, here is the press release issued by Honda:

"When walking is a struggle, you need a leg up. And that's literally what Honda's prototype Stride Management Assist device is designed to provide. A motor helps lift each leg at the thigh as it moves forward and backward. This helps lengthen the user's stride, making it easier to cover longer distances at a greater speed.

A lightweight, simple design with a belt worn around the hips and thighs was created to reduce the wearer's load and to fit different body shapes. More than 130 patents have been applied for pertaining to the walking assist devices, which are currently being tested in real-world conditions to evaluate their effectiveness. As a company that values mobility, Honda began research into a walking device in 1999. The cumulative study of human walking, along with research and development of technologies conducted for Honda's advanced humanoid robot, ASIMO, made these developments possible."

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Joe Swanson: Animated Hero

Family Guy’s Lieutenant Joseph “Joe” Swanson is over-zealous, fearless, full of bravado, short tempered, and operates by the book. He is also a capable police officer who does not get around via a patrol car. Instead, a wheelchair is his main mode of transportation.

Joe is wildly enthusiastic and has developed massive upper-body strength. He does everything his co-characters do (and more), including water skiing, sledding, roller skating, choreographing local musicals, driving, and—in one episode—climbing a street lamp. Joe’s catch phrases include the Steven Seagal-esque “Let's do it!, Get Some!” and “Bring it on!” He loves macho action and martial arts films.

These are just a few of the reasons why America loves Joe. His popularity is due in part to the fact that Joe is a welcome departure from the all-too-common portrayal of disabled people on television as bitter, helpless, and fighting to overcome huge obstacles inherent in their disabilities. Family Guy not only moves well beyond this stereotype but actually goes on to have fun with Joe’s disability.

Joe is a breakthrough. His plotlines are hilarious, and his character portrays disabled people as being far from perfect. Even the manner in which he became paralyzed is not exempt from humor: On Christmas Eve in 1989, as Joe investigates a robbery at an orphanage, he ends up battling a Grinch on the orphanage rooftop. During the fisticuffs, he slides on a roller skate, falls off the roof, and injures his spine.

Joe is never left out of the show’s twisted and politically incorrect brand of humor. Instead, his treatment is equal to that of other characters—he is included in the ribbing, just the way the others are made fun of. In fact, when Joe corrects another character who mistakes his physical disability for mental incapacity, the character accuses Joe of “just splitting hairs.”

In another episode, while marooned on a desert island for months, another Family Guy character eats Joe’s legs, claiming that Joe doesn’t need them anyway. When the men are rescued, Joe gets leg transplants, but still can’t walk because the donor was also handicapped.

It is no wonder that Joe has become one of television’s most beloved disabled characters, animated or otherwise. And until more disabled people hit the airwaves, there’s every indication that Joe’s popularity will continue to skyrocket. In his case, animated fiction is far better than media-driven “fact.”

Monday, October 19, 2009

Another Wheelchair Power Assist: NEXT Mobility Tailwind

NEXT Mobility has a power-assisted manual chair that provides resistance free assistance for the user. The Tailwind Power Package, which is fitted to their RTm lightweight manual chair, consists of a controller, lightweight battery, motors, and quick-release wheels with touch sensitive hand rims. The controller senses inputs from the hand rims about 200 times per second and will provide power assistance when it senses that the user will have difficulty, such as when the user is going uphill or traversing rough terrain. It will even assist in keeping the chair tracking correctly if it senses that one wheel is slipping and could cause the chair to travel off the intended direction. The battery provides up to 9 miles of sustained assistance and can be charged in less than 4 hours. This should provide another viable option for those needing a powered assisted manual chair. Check out the clip to see it in action.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Real-life Iron Man Suit: HAL

A Japanese company called Cyberdyne has created a exoskeletal suit that enhances the strength of the user. The Hybrid Assistive Limb, or HAL for short, Uses sensors attached to the skin to allow effortless movement with your muscles and it has the capability of increasing your strength up to 10 times. It also has a continuous operating time of about 2 hours and 40 minutes. HAL is expected to be applied in various fields such as rehabilitation support and physical training support in medical field, ADL support for disabled people, heavy labour support at factories, and rescue support at disaster sites, as well as in the entertainment field. I just find it amazing that a company like Cyberdyne exists: let us hope that they do not start to create machines that want to take over the world like the Cyberdyne in the Terminator series. Check out the info on HAL on their site.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Not Just For Cellphones: Prosthetics Get Bluetooth

If you were asked what a pair of prosthetic legs has in common with a cellphone, you would probably say “nothing.” And you would have been right—until recently.

Prosthetic legs have been made from every material from wood to plastic to metal. With each generation prosthetics experts try to make the limbs look and behave more naturally. At the same time the devices have become more complex. Now an Iceland-based orthopedics and prosthetics company, Ossur, has significantly raised the bar. Two factors make the company’s new prosthetic different from any of their predecessors. Their power knee uses artificial intelligence to sense and make adaptations for pressure and angle changes as the amputee moves. In itself computerization isn’t a giant leap away from where other prosthetics were headed. But add this to the Bluetooth device on the ankle, and now we’re dancing a new step. This Bluetooth device coordinates the movements of one leg with the movements of the other.

The technology was originally designed to be used on single leg amputees. In its originally conceived configuration, the 10-pound prosthetic would mimic the movements of a flesh-and-blood leg. In the case of a double amputee, the Bluetooth devices need to “sync up” with each other. In either case, the first step or two the user takes is usually pretty sloppy.

Users of older forms of prosthetic tire easily. It takes a great deal of effort, and a good bit of contraction from potentially damaged thigh muscles, to move a hunk of wood or a shaft of metal. But motors built into these new Bluetooth devices do much of the work. As a result, users can do more than ever before without expending nearly as much energy. There are, of course, challenges that need to be addressed with any new technology and these new prosthetics are no different. Cost is chief among the hurdles. Up until now, a top-of-the-line set of prosthetic legs ran about $20,000. The Ossur device comes with a price tag hovering around $120,000. That’s outside the price range affordable by the typical user. Furthermore, it’s been difficult to adjust the strength of the motors that help to propel the leg.

While these motors do save the user much-needed energy, on several occasions they have produced undesirable effects. Current users have reported such things as excessively strong knee jerks when trying to stand. And, because of the built-in power supply, this new device has to be charged overnight. That means going out for a long night on the town may mean either taking off the device at some point in time or leaving it at home altogether.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

New Suzuki MIO Concept To Debut At Tokyo Auto Show

Suzuki is unveiling a revised version of the MIO, a fuel cell scooter concept that they began developing a year ago and seen in a previous post. Like the earlier version, this scooter uses methanol, which is stored in easily replaceable cartridges, instead of batteries as its means of energy storage. The idea is that the cartridges are easy enough to replace that it could provide the user with a virtually unlimited range. Here is the press release issued by Suzuki:

"Suzuki's MIO electric wheelchair is powered by a direct-methanol fuel cell rather than by a conventional lead-acid battery. The methanol solution is held in a cartridge-type bottle that's easy to replace with a full spare one, so the user gains extra freedom and doesn't need to worry about running out of fuel on the road. Suzuki began joint trials of the MIO with the Shizuoka prefectural government in November 2008 with a view to enhancing its reliability ready for commercialization."

Monday, October 5, 2009

Duane Stevenson: MMA Warrior & Coach

The following clip is a trailer for a documentary of Duane Stevenson, an MMA coach who happens to be crutch-bound due to tumors in his spine. With an abusive childhood adding to the complications of dealing with a disability, Duane uses Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) as an outlet to vent his aggression. This eventually turned into the means in which he harnesses his fighting spirit and earns the admiration and respect of others that have come into his life. His determination and fighting spirit serve as an inspiration to all who have had the privilege of meeting and working with him. As you can see in the trailer, Duane treats everybody, disabled or not, the same way he likes to be treated. He teaches his students more than fighting: he teaches them how to overcome any obstacles that are in their way. Watch the trailer and get a preview of the life of this extraordinary individual.