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Technology Opens Up a World of Outdoor Recreation for Disabled

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Technology Opens Up a World of Outdoor Recreation for Disabled

Jul 23, 2015

The ADA became law in 1990 to ensure equal access and opportunities for individuals with disabilities. With that spirit in mind, scientists, researchers and physicians use technology to create devices that expand that access further than anyone could have imagined 25 years ago. Dr. Richard Kendall from University of Utah Health Care talks about how the TRAILS program’s sip & puff kayaks, robot legs, Bluetooth knees and other amazing inventions impact the lives of people disabled with spinal cord injuries by opening up a new world of recreation.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: Technology can help individuals with disabilities live a full and rewarding life. That's next on The Scope.

Announcer: We're your daily dose of science, conversation, medicine. This is The Scope. The University of Utah Health Sciences Radio.

ADA and the Purpose of TRAILS

Interviewer: Dr. Richard Kendall is with the Rehabilitation Center of University of Utah Health Care and we're talking about the Americans with Disabilities Act 25 years later, which really kind of changed a lot of people's thinking about including people with disabilities in life. Tell me about some of the work that you do to include people with disabilities in recreation.

Dr. Kendall: Well, not just including people with disabilities in recreation, but people who have a disability, like everyone else, want to recreate, wants to socialize, wants to get out of their house and out of work and do things that are fun. Our program, here at the University of Utah and TRAILS does just that for people with spinal cord injuries.

Recreational Equipment for the Disabled

Interviewer: And some of the equipment, the technology, and some of the things technology allows people with spinal injuries to do is amazing. Tell me about some of the things you have in your trailers. You have a whole bunch of trailers filled with lots of fun.

Dr. Kendall: Yes. Our program has three trailers full of equipment that are around the valley at any certain time. We have cart skis, we have robotic skis, kayaks that you can operate through sip and puff so really accessible to anyone with any level of any injury.

Advanced Technology at TRAILS

Interviewer: Let's take a little bit of a turn here and talk about technology and how technology has really changed the game for accessibility and socialization as well. There's something you have that I call robot legs, but you call it something else. Tell me a little bit about the robot legs.

Dr. Kendall: Yeah. The robot legs are exoskeletons, as they're called. They allow individuals with spinal cord injury, and soon strokes, to be able to stand and walk with the use of the robotic arms and crutches. This really is going to open a lot of opportunity for individuals with spinal cord injuries so they can stand, so they can walk, talk to their peers eye to eye. All of those are going to be very important. Technology, in general, is really opening the world and we have Bluetooth controlled prosthetic knees now. People can snowboard, people can walk in them. The technology of carbon fiber allows people to run pretty quickly if you think of Oscar Pistorius. So technology is changing and really is going to open up a lot of access for individuals with a disability.

Interviewer: I'm guessing you're about the same age as I am. When I grew up, I watched "The Six Million Dollar Man." At that point of your life, did you ever dream that that would become reality? I mean, as a physician that's pretty amazing to watch that.

Dr. Kendall: Yeah. It certainly is. While "The Six Million Dollar Man," if you think back in, I think that was the '70s, how much $6 million would have cost. If you think about it now we have neural interphases that people have an electrode put in their brain and can operate robot arms just with their thoughts. So yes, technology is coming to life and I think these are going to be things that as computer and softwares develop further, we're going to see really tremendous growth.

Overcoming Disabilities in the Future

Interviewer: What's on the horizon? What's in the future? What next thing that we can imagine now is going to happen?

Dr. Kendall: Well, the exoskeletons are really in, what I would say is an infant stage at this point. I think that as the computer algorithms develop, you're going to be able these develop where you can stand and walk on their own. I mean, a number of companies have drones that can stand, walk, walk over rocky surfaces with no tethering devices for balance on their own. So I think you're going to see these develop into where somebody can put on the exoskeleton legs and walk even without the use of crutches, and balance, and not fall over.

Interviewer: Will that replace a wheelchair eventually?

Dr. Kendall: For many people, I think it will replace it for many things that they do and I don't think it'll be 100%, but certainly give them accessibility to be up and moving around.

Bluetooth Knees for Work or Play

Interviewer: That's incredible. I want to jump back quickly. What's a Bluetooth knee do, by the way?

Dr. Kendall: A Bluetooth knee, basically it's a knee that you can program through your smartphone and tell it to be more rigid or less rigid, depending on what activity you're doing. If you're using it for snowboarding, you can program it so it takes a real big hit and doesn't collapse easily, whereas if you're walking and you want a little more subtle joint play, then you can program for walk mode.

Stories of Life-Changing Technology

Interviewer: With your interaction with people that use this technology, your patients and what not, tell me the benefit. Tell me a story about how it affects their life.

Dr. Kendall: One of the things that when you see somebody stand and walk, who's been on a wheelchair for a number of years, just the look on their face and really their desire to be able to talk to you while they're standing up, it's really something that is hard to describe. It really brings a whole new phase into their life and gives them hope for the future and further access. Then there's the person who used the sip and puff kayak for the first time, had been living mostly in a nursing home or assisted living facility for many, many years. And he is a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic, can't use his arms or legs, but operated the sip and puff machine very well. The only problem was because he would laugh a number of times, couldn't use the sip and puff]to correctly steer.

Interviewer: Because he was so excited that he was laughing.

Dr. Kendall: He was so excited, he was laughing, being out on the lake in the kayak.

Interviewer: If somebody was interested in learning more about this type of technology to make their life better, what would they do? What would be the first step?

Dr. Kendall: Well, the first step is to go to our website here at the University of Utah Rehabilitation Center and look for theTRAILS program.

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