Over one billion people live with some form of disability – that’s 15% of the world’s population. Since 1992, United Nations Enable has observed December 3 as the International Day of Persons with Disabilities in order to promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilize support for the dignity, rights, and wellbeing of persons with disabilities.
This year’s theme is “Sustainable Development: The Promise of Technology.” According to UN Enable, “The 2014 commemoration of IDPD will work to harness the power of technology to promote inclusion and accessibility to help realize the full and equal participation of persons with disabilities in society and shape the future of sustainable development for all!”
Our goals at TIRR Memorial Hermann mirror this sentiment. Most rehabilitation professionals agree that full participation in society – or community reintegration – is the ultimate goal of rehabilitation. According to Lex Frieden, the Senior Scientist and Director of TIRR Memorial Hermann’s Independent Living Research Utilization Program, “TIRR Memorial Hermann therapy programs are focused on helping people develop the necessary physical abilities and, even more importantly, the problem-solving skills they’ll need to find ways to adapt to whatever restrictions they encounter as a result of disability.”
Frieden was instrumental in conceiving and drafting the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and was a member of the World Health Organization panel that redefined disability as “a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives. Overcoming the difficulties faced by people with disabilities requires interventions to remove environmental and social barriers.”
Technology and research play important roles in improving the care we provide and breaking these barriers. Earlier this year, we opened the new TIRR Memorial Hermann Research Center, uniting the hospital’s research programs under one roof. “The history of rehabilitation is replete with collaboration, which has led to breakthroughs in treatment and community reintegration,” says Frieden.
Therapists introduce assistive technology so that patients can be more independent and return to work or school. With assistive technology, patients can learn how to:
- Communicate using voice activation to use an iPad/smart phone
- Use chin/head controls to maneuver a power wheelchair
- Use chin/head controls in their wheelchair to access an iPad/smart phone
- Voice activation, eye gaze systems or sip and puff system to access a computer
Technology in Spinal Cord Injury
Spinal Cord Injury, or SCI, often requires sophisticated technology to help patients regain their independence. When Braxton Taylor arrived at TIRR Memorial Hermann in August 2013, he was unable to walk, transfer, eat or manage other activities of daily living without total assistance.
Born with Arnold-Chiari malformation, Taylor began to experience symptoms – weakness on the right side and headaches – when he was in high school. A neurological disorder of the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls balance, Arnold-Chiari malformation occurs when parts of the cerebellum and brain stem are pushed downward into the foramen magnum, a funnel-like opening to the spinal canal, and into the upper part of the spinal canal. The result is pressure on the cerebellum that can affect functions controlled by this area of the brain and block the flow of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) to and from the brain.
“My main goal was to be able to walk and live more independently,” says Braxton. When he was discharged on Halloween, he could walk with assistance and was independent in most aspects of daily care.
Here are some of the technologies from which Braxton and other patients at TIRR Memorial Hermann benefit:
- Hocoma Armeo®Spring: An ergonomic arm exoskeleton with integrated springs that enhances function and neuromuscular control
- FES Bike: Applies small electrical pulses to paralyzed muscles to restore or improve their function
- Specially designed knee-ankle-foot orthoses (KAFOs) that stabilize the joints and assist the muscles of the leg
- Ekso™ exoskeleton, a wearable bionic suit that enables individuals with lower-extremity weakness to stand and walk over ground to improve strength, mobility and endurance
According to Matthew E. Davis, M.D, clinical director of our Spinal Cord Injury Program, “Technology has advanced dramatically in the area of orthotics and robotics and that trend will continue. Body weight-supported treadmill ambulation was a major innovation, and we now have the Bioness Vector Gait & Safety System™, an advanced overground gait and body weight-support system that allows patients to practice intensive physical therapy early in their rehabilitation. Early research suggests that walking over ground, rather than on a treadmill, may have a more beneficial effect on neuroplasticity.”
Breaking Down Barriers
Community re-integration is at the forefront of our goals at TIRR Memorial Hermann. However, it’s more than just helping patients return to the life they had before illness or injury. Lex Frieden believes “it’s being able to do anything we choose to do, no matter how wild and crazy it is – without barriers.”
The International Day of Persons with Disabilities focuses on recognizing the barriers that do exist – and finding ways to break them down. “We are proud to be a part of that process for our patients,” says TIRR Memorial Hermann CEO Carl Josehart, “We are 100 percent committed to helping people with disabilities participate fully in all aspects of life.”