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For many decades, National Research Council scientists have developed practical and innovative aids for people with disabilities. These devices have helped improve the everyday lives of people with visual, verbal, physical and other disabilities.
Blind since the age of four, James Swail spent almost 40 years at NRC developing devices to increase the mobility and job skills of the blind. He was determined to make a personal contribution in the struggle of blind people to achieve an independent way of life in a sighted world.
Among his countless inventions are a sensor for detecting light sources, sound beacons to identify where objects are located, voice synthesizers for telephones and electric thermometers with readouts that can be heard or felt.
|Dr. Jim Swail and his ultrasonic obstacle detector.|
Perhaps this NRC inventor is best known for developing a better white cane. White canes are used by visually impaired people to feel and avoid obstacles in their path and as means of identifying themselves. But in certain situations, like crowded classrooms or restaurants, long canes can get in the way or become difficult to store. To help reduce inconvenience, Swail devised a four-section collapsible cane that could be easily folded and kept in a pocket or purse when not being used.
Swail also developed an alternative to the cane for use in crowded situations where canes are not practical, like parties or busy stores. His ultrasonic obstacle detector used radar to locate obstacles in a blind person's path. When a person or object was detected, the device's handle vibrated to alert the user.
Several devices have been created to help the visually impaired use technology, including a pocket-sized electronic calculator for the blind, a device to allow blind computer programmers to read punch cards and a synthetic speech output for blind computer users.
The electric wheelchair is probably the best-known mobility aid for persons with physical disabilities. The first practical motorized wheelchair was developed at NRC by George Klein in the 1950s to help severely disabled veterans returning from the Second World War. Further testing with paraplegic and quadriplegic led to the development of ways to controlling the wheelchair with a finger, chin or head, giving patients the opportunity to experience an exciting new independence.
NRC also designed a "5-wheel unicycle" to help those with mobility limitations get around their homes and workplaces. Depending on a person's disability, the device could be adapted with different seating or standing apparatuses – like a chair for sitting, a saddle seat for people with cerebral palsy or a board that allows the user to move around while standing. Users "drove" the vehicle by pressing on a hoop that surrounded their body. In office and home settings, the unicycle was well-suited to working at benches or countertops and allowed users to be at eye level with a standing person.
NRC also developed a convertible bed/chair that allowed for better comfort and easier handling of extremely disabled people.
While most aids for people with disabilities are designed to help with their most basic needs like movement and communication, NRC also recognized the often-overlooked importance of leisure activities. This is why researchers also devised several recreational aids, like a device to turn the pages of a book.
Perhaps the most frustrating disabilities are those that restrict a person from expressing themselves or communicating. To help overcome some of these difficulties, NRC started the COMHANDI research program in the 1960s to develop communication aids for the disabled.
One such aid was a mechanical pointer system for non-verbal cerebral palsy children. By using a joystick or switches, the child could communicate by selecting symbols from a display board. Because communication was done through symbols, this device could be used by children who were not able to read or write.
In 1980, NRC created two electronic games that could be played without requiring a great deal of manual dexterity. Both "Checktronics" (an electronic checkers game) and "Steeplechase" (designed for younger players) could be easily operated by pressing on large switches to control playing pieces represented by small LED lights on the board.
"Checktronics" and "Steeplechase" provided many people with physical disabilities an opportunity to play board games without assistance for the first time, leading to a sense of independence and accomplishment, and most importantly, a lot of fun.