Innovating Beyond Barriers

Reprinted from PN March 2009

From a morphing handcycle and tactile visual substitution device to an actively powered ankle-foot prosthetic, users and scientists are sharing ideas that shift the paradigm of possibility and bring the seemingly impossible to reality.

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When it comes to understanding the handcycle, it is safe to say Rory McCarthy of Bath, Maine, knows a thing or two about what it takes to make the wheels spin. After sweating through almost three decades on the road and logging upwards of 75,000 arm-powered miles that included two trips across the United States, a trip from north to south, a journey the length of Vietnam, and a nine-month odyssey around the world, McCarthy had handcycled more places most other cyclists and handcyclists dream of visiting.

If you ask McCarthy to tell you about the biggest challenges he encountered along the way, he will say it had nothing to do with the conditions, the miles, or even the Gobi Desert; he says those many times when he was without his wheelchair, fitting the handcycle into the attractions, sites, and homes he encountered along the way posed the biggest challenge.

Working at the MIT Media Lab, Professor Hugh Herr developed the PowerFoot One, a powered ankle-foot prosthesis.

Blind climber Erik Weihenmayer, of Golden, Colo., tells a similar story. After he lost his eyesight at age 13, friends and family believed Weihenmayer's chances of living a full and rewarding life had become all but impossible. Yet Weihenmayer trudged ahead and pioneered countless personal systems that made it possible for him to climb to new heights and achieve goals most sighted people consider impossible.

Weihenmayer is the only blind climber to stand on the summit of the world's seven tallest summits, including Mount Everest, and says despite his accomplishments there were still little things he wanted to do in his life that no amount of hard work or determination on his own might provide. Despite his blindness, he yearned for a way to see and share the small images his children saw in books and games as they grew.

And when Hugh Herr, PhD, lost both his legs to frostbite near the sub-zero summit of New Hampshire's Mount Washington in whiteout conditions in 1982, he did not let his disability keep him from returning to the outdoors he so loved to explore. Herr thought of ways to use his disability to his advantage and began building prosthetic limbs that allowed him to make his legs just a bit longer, and climb at a more advanced level than he could before his accident. By thinking outside the realm of existing possibility, Herr opened doors for others and made it possible to actively participate in those outdoor activities and professions previously unattainable to amputees.

However, Herr admits that even with the most advanced prosthetic devices in place, there were dissynergies between the performance of existing prostheses and replicating the optimal performance of the human body through advanced technology.

What makes McCarthy, Weihenmayer, and Herr unique is they all have chosen to become involved with the researchers and developers who create the products that make life accessible to those similarly disabled rather than settle for using existing products and assistive devices that fall short of their lofty expectations. By becoming scientists as well as end users, each has helped advance the rate at which assistive devices, gear, and equipment change the world for people with disabilities. And they are using unique, collaborative forums and symposiums to share their results with the world.

The products and innovations presented at No Barriers Festival 2009 will enable people with challenges to live as actively as possible. Read more in the March PN.


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Innovating Beyond Barriers


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