Once again, little old New Zealand is leading the way.
Seven years from the inception of drawing an idea on a beer mat, New Zealand company Rex Bionics has come up with a robotic exoskeleton for people with limited, or no mobility in their legs.
It’s early stages for the product – currently they’re slow, noisy and costly…But after 7 years of work, that’s no biggie. Look ahead another 7 or so years from now, and the evolution of this product could be like comparing the iphone with the prehistoric cell phone bricks – that had a battery life of 5 minutes a mere 15 years ago.
The company is of course marketing the robotic legs as something to be used in conjunction with other mobility devices. It is important to stress this point: the wheelchair is far from redundant. It’s a lot more practical, and a whole lot faster to negotiate the world in a wheelchair than with a robotic exoskeleton. We are not going to see people walking down the street looking like Robocop just yet. The product is designed to be another tool available for people with disabilities to access a world that isn’t always accessible to all.
However, there is a threat that comes with this new product. The way it’s been reported builds the perception that walking is the be-all and end-all for those of us in a chair. It’s the perception that people who have a disability are denied living a normal life, and that they hang out waiting for these breakthroughs to happen. From my experience, for most people with a disability, life simply rocks along. What was that famous John Lennon line? “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans”. The reality is that medical and technological developments keep ticking over – and so do we!
With any reporting from the mainstream there is also the constant misuse of language used when referring to people with disabilities. We end up with terminology such as ‘wheelchair bound’ and ‘confined to a wheelchair’.
For the record: I’m not bound to a wheelchair, and I’m definitely not confined to one. I use a wheelchair, and yes, there is a big difference. I used to be blasé about the PC brigade, but I’ve come to realise it’s not about changing words, it’s about changing a way of thinking.
As for the words of a NZ herald journalist recently: ‘MS sufferer hopes robotic skeleton will eventually be within reach of many cripples’.
My first reaction: ‘Did we just go back in time?’
Speaking of changing ways of thinking, I was talking with someone else that has been in a wheelchair for a few years about Rex Bionics new exoskeleton. Their comment was that they would feel like a freak walking down the street with robotic legs, and that they feel like they fit in if they are in their wheelchair. The first thing that struck me was brilliant! It’s a reflection on society, and that person’s comfort in their own skin, that they feel like they fit in if they are in a wheelchair. It’s the ultimate goal – the fully inclusive society. But I couldn’t help wonder if that is where we are at now with the wheelchair…will people eventually feel like that with Rex Bionics exoskeleton? And of course, what will be the next stage to come along after that?
Yet another question I couldn’t help but ponder: if Rex Bionics kept the concept of a robotic exoskeleton quiet for 7 years as they developed it…what other products do they have up their sleeves that they are working away on and keeping quiet about???