Technology for social good - Disrupt Disability

Profile picture for user catheverett By Cath Everett February 22, 2017
Technology has the potential to be used as a force for social good. Cath Everett speaks to Disrupt Disability founder Rachael Wallach.

Set up in 2008 by Nominet, the official registry for UK internet domain names, the Nominet Trust has since invested more than £25 million into projects that employ digital tech to bring about positive social change. Each year, it also produces a list of its top 100 most inspiring innovations, including the work being done by Disrupt Disability. 

While backpacking around India and South East Asia in 2014, Rachael Wallach noticed that she was one of the few wheelchair users in the region and the only person wheeling herself.

World Health Organisation figures subsequently revealed that eight out of 10 people around the world – the equivalent of 52 million – either have access to no wheelchair at all or have one that is unsuited to their needs.

A key problem is the price tag associated with traditional manufacturing techniques. To buy a fully customised chair costs at least £2,000, which is six times the annual salary of someone in a country like Laos.

A year later when in Jordan, meanwhile, Wallach happened to visit a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called Refugee Openware. It had created the first open source, customised prosthetic hand using 3D printing techniques for $39. The hand was made for a boy who had lost his fingers during the Syrian conflict.

The fact that the NGO was able to produce items so cost-effectively inspired Wallach to try and re-apply some of the concepts into the wheelchair domain. By summer 2106, she had obtained a residency at a British Council-sponsored makerspace in London called the Machine Rooms, where she was able to network with engineers and access laser cutting and CNC milling machines, as well as 3D printers to see them in action.

At the same time, she also set up Disrupt Disability. The aim of the not-for-profit was to create an open source library of modular designs for different elements of a wheelchair, which would all come with standard interfaces to ensure everything slotted together easily. Wallach explains:

When you buy a bike, you can buy handle bars and pedals from different companies in standard settings, which gives you a lot of flexibility. But no one’s created a modular, standard design for wheelchairs before. The price we have in mind is about £500, but the goal isn’t just about lowering the price. It’s about radically changing the way that wheelchairs are made. If one person designs the frame, and another the footplate or backrest, you hugely increase the choice that people have, and the ability to customise things.

The idea is that wheelchair users in the developed world will be able to select a design from the library for manufacture by a third party and Disrupt Disability will charge a brokerage fee. In the developing world, however, local NGOs will be able to select and modify designs for free.

While work is still ongoing to produce the underlying design criteria, participants in various hackathons have already come up with some initial designs for different wheelchair parts. But in March, one of the briefs for the Royal Society of Arts’ Student Design Awards is to develop standardised interfaces, which should move the project on considerably.  All being well, the aim is to start making the first conformant designs available by August. Wallach concludes:

It’s about creating an online library of open source designs to connect wheelchair users with the people making them. We don’t necessarily want everything to be a single price. We want the person using it to have a choice. It’s as much about choice and control as it is about affordability.

My take

Some inspiring examples across the three use cases in this short series. Whether you’re a tech expert or not, one of the secrets to digital start-up success appears to be having a simple idea that everyone else wishes they’d thought of. It’s also about networking and continuing to ask for help from anyone who’s willing to listen, combined with lots of perseverance and hard work.

Image credit - Disrupt Disability

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