Help disabled individuals with day to day difficulties
February 15, 2007 9:18 AM   Subscribe

[Handicap/Mobility Impairment Filter] What are some of the most irritating, or seriously restrictive access/mobility problems faced by people with motion disabilities/impairment due to injury, or disability on a daily basis? This is sort of a non-profit version of this recent AskMe.

I’m an engineering student and I need to perform an analysis and write a report concerning some device or system that helps people with disabilities. I need help and the problem is, I don’t know anyone firsthand at home in Canada and for the next few months I’m in France at a nuclear power plant!

I don’t know what kinds of things are genuinely difficult for disabled individuals on a day-to-day basis. Things I imagine would be difficult, like holding an umbrella while “propelling” a wheelchair might be overcome with a poncho, or a gadget to hold umbrellas that already exists. Are those really-strong-to-open doors that don't have the auto-open button a huge problem, or is there some hack/technique for people with walkers, canes, crutches and/or wheelchairs that I just don't know about?

My research into disability and handicaps on Google and MeFi don’t yield the kind of thing I’m looking for. Obviously my attempts to put myself in the place of disabled are failing, and I think the difficulties they face are the result of that kind of superficial attempt in the first place (this will be the basis of my report) My assumption here is that there are day-to-day things that people like me (able-bodied engineers) assume are problems but really aren’t. Maybe curb-cuts aren’t as important as level door thresholds, or maybe grab-bars in accessible bathrooms should be adjustable because the default is next to useless.

Some points to consider:
  • I can pick any design or analysis topic as I choose, but I want to help people with disabilities for my own reasons.
  • This can help an individual specifically, or address a general problem.
  • It can be people with temporary disability, like individuals recovering from surgery, or injury, etc.
  • I think it would be difficult for me to find and explain my situation to a disabled individual here in France in a timely fashion and get the necessary input and feedback, etc.
  • A focus group would help me identify some of the problems, but I fear my language difficulties will inadvertently provoke an international incident if I try any kind of focus group arranged through a local hospital or physiotherapy/rehabilitation centre by using a word like “cripple” or accidentally promising to build them some kind of magical stair-climbing segway wheelchair hybrid.
  • Also, my design capacity is limited because the laptop I brought doesn’t have my usual design tools (solid modeling, FEA, etc.). I could probably “obtain” that, but the conceptual analysis, material selection, justifying calculations, etc. should be enough to keep me busy.
  • Some examples proposed by a professor of mine, having been excluded due to lack of design facilities include a “standing-frame” wheelchair and a convertible sitting/standing wheel chair. I also thought about doing a feasibility analysis on setting up an inaccessibility database like NYC is using for potholes and crimes, so that money spent on updating infrastructure could be targeted to locations and problems that are actually impacting people. [consumerist article on same DB] This project has the possibility of extending into detailed design and ACTUAL construction, so depending on where it goes, this could really change a life or lives. I know this must sound like I'm trying to cheat on my homework, but I really can't think of the day to day problems that must really piss off the temporarily or permanently disabled. Surely there are some MeFites who are, or have been afflicted with mobility impairments who can shed some light on this and get me pointed in the right direction. And the point of the report is the analysis portion, and the engineering work, not necessarily the brainstorming. I will credit all relevant responses as appropriate. Thanks in advance!
posted by KevCed to Technology (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You might want to focus on a "personal" device as opposed to an architectural concept. The reason is that there is a huge literature and body of research already on access standards and "universal design" for wheelchair users and visually impaired persons. Or, if you want to do an architectural concept, be sure that you figure out what's already out there and what is currently viewed as the best practice, or maybe pick an issue that is currently being debated.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:43 AM on February 15, 2007

Re-reading your question, the database is a great idea. My ex is a wheelchair user, and it was hugely irritating to try to go somewhere and discover at the last minute that it's inaccessible. And it can be difficult to get accurate information about access on line or by telephone. Another thing to include in the database would be locations of wheelchair accessible bathrooms.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:46 AM on February 15, 2007

Seconding the idea for a database. In fact it's such a good idea, I can't believe it hasn't been attempted yet. Not only would it serve as a valuable resource for the disabled, but it could potentially be the basis of non-disabled people putting pressure on businesses/governments/websites to become accessible. It could even spawn a consumer advocacy organization. Plus you could name it something like "Steve's List" or "Sarah's list" to put it on the same level of gravitas as Emily's List or Craig's List.

If the physical infrastructure idea didn't work out, you could do the same idea for web destinations and accessible web-design.
posted by ontic at 10:39 AM on February 15, 2007

The standing (and I think also the convertible standing/sitting) chair already exists, if I understand you correctly.

I Nth the database idea, but don't just make it a name-n-shame list - allow positive mentions. Show dates, so people can say "back in '07 it sucked, but now in '08, they've turned around". Make it searchable (show all facilities in X category that have Y rating) for a wide variety of factors - that is, show 'lack of elevators' separately from 'heavy doors, no buttons' (to answer your other question, no, there's no good hack for this; some people are strong enough to do it anyway, some aren't) and 'inaccessible bathroom'.

If you do that, *please* post the link, or email me if that would violate self-link conventions or whatever - I would love to see it.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 11:01 AM on February 15, 2007

I'll suggest cashwraps at many retail stores. There usually (as required by law, I think) is at least one register that has the PIN pad, counter, etc. low enough for people in wheelchairs to use, but because it's low, it's often not comfortable for the (standing) cashier to use. So it ends up not ever having a till in the drawer because no one wants to work on that register, and if a wheelchair-user needs to check out there, a new till has to be counted and brought out, and it takes a while. There's got to be a better way.
posted by slenderloris at 1:45 PM on February 15, 2007

The convertible standing/sitting wheelchair exists. My sister has one similar to this model.
posted by rafter at 2:19 PM on February 15, 2007

Re: the database. What people require for accessibility varies a LOT, so having a single designation "wheelchair accessible" is not as useful as having measurements, diagrams, very specific questions to be answered (eg "grab bar next to toilet?") etc. A primary problem that my dad encounters is that facility owners don't realize how big a problem something like a 2" lip between rooms can pose -- so they'll say "yes, our building is accessible" and then he arrives to find he can't get in. And someone who is strong enough to get up and walk a few steps, or light enough to be carried a few steps, may not notice the things that would keep my dad out.

Misc problems he has run into:
He uses a lift van. A platform slides out the passenger-side backseat sliding door of the van, and lowers to the pavement so he can drive his wheelchair in or out. For this to work he needs 8' of room to the passenger side of the van, and a LEVEL parking space. These can be hard to come by. A lift that didn't require these -- eg if it could compensate for a sloped surface -- would be much more flexible for him.

He's used a lot of different power chairs and scooters. One of the major power chairs - Hoverround - turned out to be a problem in the house, because due to its wheel design there was 5" of uncertainty about where it would stop when turning. This has meant a lot of banged-up wall trim, and barked shins. The problem is, how to make a power wheelchair that is very reliable, easy to operate and maintain, not a huge power-suck, can carry someone heavy, and with the fineness of control to steer around a normal -- read "cramped" -- house interior without wrecking up the place?

Sitting in the chair all day has caused circulatory problems for him. He's heavy, 275 lbs, and his legs can't support his weight. It would be helpful to have an affordable device for the home that would help him to stand upright for a short time each day.

Transferring between chair and toilet, tub, etc has been a constant area of difficulty. Now he has transfer boards (slick 2.5" long wood planks) that work well. He can carry them around with him; they're cheap enough that he can have one at every routine transfer point; they keep him from falling down. Devices for transfer would be a good thing to work on, since there are SO many situations where they're needed, for such a range of abilities.

Other places to check out, or ask for ideas:
The Gimp Parade, a blog on disability issues. Pretty heavily political, not as much engineering oriented, but might be a good place to start. She's got links to other major disability web-presences, so take a look around there.

Here's the Access Guide to Canada, a database something like what you're thinking of. You can take a look and see what the obvious shortcomings are, what kinds of info they have trouble getting, implementation problems etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:42 PM on February 15, 2007

transfer boards = 2.5' long. Not 2.5".
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:47 PM on February 15, 2007

Another thing I meant to mention:
If he falls to the floor, it's VERY hard for him to get back up into the chair. He can't support any weight at all with his legs, so must rely on picking himself up on his arms. He can only get about an inch of clearance from the floor this way -- can't even hoist himself up to the bottom stair, which is what he used to do when he was lighter and his wrists/hands less arthritic. So a cheap reliable way -- that he can do on his own -- to lift his rump from the floor to chair height would be a *godsend* to him. This is probably his #1 problem at the moment.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:52 PM on February 15, 2007

Ok, thought of another huge one. Air travel. For people who can't walk at all, and can't be carried, it's a nightmare. If you want to get on the plane, you have to transfer to a tiny hand-chair, wheeled on by an airline employee, and worst, turn over your power chair (your lifeline, your legs, the only way you can leave the airport when you arrive!) to the baggage handlers who couldn't give a damn less about what they see as another piece of cargo. Power chairs are finicky and don't tolerate rough handling at all well. A system that would allow common chairs to be handled carefully and quickly in airports would be a huge boon. (Eg maybe standardized boxes with lots of padding inside and with exterior handles that force a handler to keep them right side up?)
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:59 PM on February 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

Wow, the response has been awesome. I'm clarifying the requirements on this report at the moment, because a technical standards based database might work, but if not I will pursue that on my own time and tackle the apparatus to allow LobsterMitten's dad to stand up himself from the floor, or his chair.

My prof suggested something similar as well, and I doubt that LobsterMitten's dad is the only individual who would like to stand up and restore circulation on his own.

As for the air travel, noticed something similar on my flight over here, with carriages for infants and the like as well. Large, necessary equipment that must be "sacrificed" early in the boarding procedure. I don't know enough about the logistics at an airport to think of away around security concerns (the security climate isn't likely to change) but I have some friends who are interns at GTAA who might be able to pilot something like that. No pun intended.

Thanks for the great ideas!
posted by KevCed at 9:02 AM on February 16, 2007

rafter: you're right, the convertible sitting/standing has existed for a while. I should have been more specific in my novel of a post. My prof suggested designing a more affordable version, perhaps purely mechanical, adaptable to those who cannot stand (i.e. with some kind of upper body or torso restraint)
posted by KevCed at 9:05 AM on February 16, 2007

a more affordable version, perhaps purely mechanical,

Yes yes yes! There are already very expensive aids for things like this -- basically, they're hospital equipment made slightly smaller for the home. But of course, what one wants is a rump-lifter that's cheap enough that you can have one in the bedroom/bathroom, one on the main floor of the house, one in the garage, etc. -- so you can have one in the places where you might suddenly need it. If there's only one in the house, and you can't get to it, that's no good. Ideally, it would be light enough that you could take it in the car for trips to hotels, relatives' houses, etc (anyplace you'd use a bathroom, a common time to fall while transferring).

A circulation-stander could afford to be bulkier, I think. Its use would be a predictable routine thing. But a rump-lifter for getting back in the chair is exactly for unpredictable circumstances, so the more portable/flexible/cheap the better.

Plus in general, there's so much electronic, complex, expensive stuff he has to rely on to work in concert for something as simple as going out to the grocery store -- the more simple, mechanical, and reliable any step can be the better.

Please let me know if you come up with anything or have other questions; my email is in my profile.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:33 PM on February 16, 2007

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