In a basement office at Purdue University in Indiana, associate professor of engineering practice Brad Duerstock has designed a special space.
His desk sits up on cinder blocks, slightly higher than all the rest. In the meeting area, tables have adjustable heights. And in the corner, a few feet away, there's an early version of one of his latest inventions, something he calls RoboDesk.
Behind all this is Duerstock's work to make his office space — and the college environment — easier to navigate for people who use wheelchairs. And having an easier way to use laptops or tablets in class has become an indispensable part of it.
RoboDesk is a motorized metal arm that attaches to a rail underneath a wheelchair, smoothly extending and retracting a sort of tray for an electronic device or a notebook — or anything else.
Duerstock, who's been using a wheelchair since he suffered a spinal cord injury as a teenager, was trying to improve on similar mounts that already exist. What he wanted was something that would be light and thin, and extend or fold away neatly in a way that wouldn't make the wheelchair bulkier or harder to maneuver, for instance, through a door or sliding under a desk.
"I've used mounting systems where I was so kind of physically away from the table, (that) I was more close to the table behind me than the table I was really involved with," Duerstock says. "So it is excluding."
Duerstock says often, using a wheelchair also comes with a stigma, just because the person looks different. "The more they can do things, the more they can interact how people without disabilities interact, which is electronically, then yeah, those social barriers also drop," Duerstock says.
His goal is to make incremental progress toward wheelchairs being as accepted a human augmentation as wearing glasses, while also giving people with mobility challenges another way to be as productive and independent as possible.
"What Brad's trying to do and the product itself could have great implications for the market," says Microsoft Chief Accessibility Officer Jenny Lay-.
"I don't think, broadly, we — as in society — appreciate how big the segment of people with disabilities is in the world. It is huge."
In fact, Lay-Flurrie says, the number, globally, is more than 1 billion people. "I think the scope and scale of the market here is pretty immense."
Microsoft and other tech companies regularly talk to or work with various inventors to make products for people with disabilities, often through a group called the Assistive Technology Industry Association. Many of these inventors are often entrepreneurs who see a problem encountered by someone in the family, says ATIA CEO David Dikter.
But though the assistive technology is getting attention from inventors and the tech corporations, the education tech space is still underserved.
"I think that no matter what, all of our companies — all of our manufacturers of technology — would likely agree that they're not reaching the number of students or adults or individuals with disabilities that we can be reaching," Dikter says.
The reason? Dikter and Duerstock agree: "When you talk about people with disabilities, one size does not fit all," as Duerstock put it.
The RoboDesk creator has only one prototype right now, which he's testing through his company Prehensile Technologies. Duerstock's goal is to mass produce his invention in a way that could be adapted to any wheelchair. He says the price would be around $1,000 to $2,000, which he says is a rough price of a standard physical mount system.
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