How tech is helping people with disabilities lead healthier, richer lives

With the Rio Olympics behind us the Paralympics will soon be underway and we'll be celebrating the achievements of some of the most amazing disabled people on the planet. We can’t all be athletes, but tech is helping disabled and able-bodied people alike lead healthier lives and reach their full potential.

Hannah Cockroft is just one of the many British Paralympians who will be aiming to reach new heights of achievement in Rio

It’s hard to imagine an area where technology can’t improve the life choices and quality of people with disabilities. Smartphones, tablets and even watches now give us amazingly powerful computers wherever we go. And they all come with a range of sensors such as cameras, GPS and heart monitors that can be incredibly empowering - perhaps even more so when one or more of your own senses don’t work.

Cost and convenience

Whereas a disabled person used to have to purchase expensive (and often relatively limited) devices, they can often now use mainstream gadgets such as a smartphone that have all the necessary accessibility features built-in and which offer thousands of apps that do the same functions for a fraction of the price.

As a blind person I used to need a talking GPS device (£750), a talking notetaker (£1500), a talking barcode scanner (£150) and many, many more specialist devices – all that had to be carried around in a backpack and each with their own charger etc – whereas now I have all that functionality and an awful lot more in one device. That same device is also almost infinitely expandable with each new app or service that comes along.

The future of health and tech

Undoubtedly at the heart of future tech that will assist people to lead a healthier life will be the smartphone. Still the ‘hub’ of a wide ecosystem of peripheral devices for the foreseeable future, it is almost impossible to underestimate the potential of the smartphone to transform the lives of disabled people.

From hailing and interacting with an autonomous ride, to controlling your environment, to adjusting the settings on smart prosthetics, to interfacing with a world of information and services, the smartphone will carry on giving and enabling.

Having said all the above, I actually use my phone considerably less since getting my smartwatch; which is like a quick window into my phone’s most commonly used features – it taps me on the wrist when I need to turn down the next street; it means I can pay for items without even taking my phone out of my pocket, and it lets me know how bad my night’s sleep has been – but behind the watch and driving all its services is always the phone.

Fitness, health and wearable tech

One area where particular health benefits can be accrued is wearables and the ‘quantified self’. This basically means that gadgets that monitor your steps, exercise and heartrate etc are both encouraging a healthier lifestyle whilst at the same time gathering vast amounts of data which can assist both on a personal diagnosis level and also on the level of ‘big data’.

Apple is leading the way in these areas; the aforementioned Apple Watch, for example, is totally accessible and can monitor a wide range of activities. In the latest update is has included in its workouts a range of commonly used wheelchair arm-movements to ensure that even the various ways that users operate their chairs in different exercise activities are accurately recorded. As a blind person I can use the stair-stepper workout to go up and down the stairs at home (who needs a gym?) and all my calories burned and heartrate activity are measured.

This level of data can provide valuable information for monitoring individual health, but Apple also have a much broader programme (called ‘Research Kit’) that is taking anonymised, aggregated, data and making it available to medical research projects on a scale never available before.

More healthy goodness

The above is a shorter version of an interview published recently in the British Journal of Healthy Computing discussing wearable computing, the internet of things and much, much more.

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