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‘Need Knowers’ and ‘Makers’ Unite to Create Innovative Assistive Technology

27 November 2017 at 4:55 pm
Wendy Williams
People with disability are teaming up with technology specialists to develop creative, low cost solutions for everyday problems in just 72 hours.

Wendy Williams | 27 November 2017 at 4:55 pm


‘Need Knowers’ and ‘Makers’ Unite to Create Innovative Assistive Technology
27 November 2017 at 4:55 pm

People with disability are teaming up with technology specialists to develop creative, low cost solutions for everyday problems in just 72 hours.

The TOM: Melbourne Makeathon, is part of a global movement that drives assistive technology innovation and puts people with disability at the centre of solutions, with the aim of impacting the lives of 250 million people around the world in the next 10 years.

It has been brought to Australia by Debbie Dadon AM, chair of the Besen Family Foundation, and Israel Trade Commission in partnership with Swinburne University of Technology and Flying Fox.

Now in its second year, the Melbourne event will see teams of volunteer “makers” consisting of engineers, craftspeople, occupational therapists and programmers attempting to solve 11 “need knower” challenges set by Australians living with a disability.

Mandy McCracken, a quadruple amputee who nearly lost her life to a bacterial infection in 2013, is returning for her second makeathon, tasking a team with the challenge of creating a universal bottle pourer.

She told Pro Bono News it was important for the able bodied design world to have an understanding of what it means for someone with a disability.

“I think it is a really good opportunity, especially for the design students, to get real practical examples of life with disability so that when they go on to have careers that span for decades they can take that knowledge and experience with them,” McCracken said.

“My first challenge was a bike. I am a quadruple amputee, I have lost both legs below the knee and both arms below the elbow, so riding a bicycle was pretty much out of the question because I can’t bend my knees past 90 degrees. I had actually been trying to retrofit a bike and I just wasn’t having any luck so when I heard about this I thought, why not give the bike idea a go, and now I’m riding my bicycle.

“[This year] I thought let’s extend it beyond just me, and look for something that would be a solution for people who have issues holding heavy bottles and jugs.

“Certainly this idea is not just for my solution, I wanted to make sure it was for a real general audience out there. I already have a few friends that want one if it works, so somebody needs to cross their fingers for me.”

McCracken said taking part in TOM: Melbourne reminded her that there was a solution to any ergonomic challenge she faced.

But she said many of the challenges were things the general public may never have considered.

“I’m sure that the disability world knows that it is an issue but I think the general public wouldn’t even think of this stuff,” she said.

“So I am sitting here in a rehab hospital speaking to you and behind me is a patient’s kitchen, so whenever someone has had a stroke or lost a limb, or has some sort of mobility issue, they go into the kitchen and they have to relearn how to use everyday kitchen tools.

“So picking up a bottle and pouring milk in your coffee used to be really easy for me, but now is near impossible, and I know that there are plenty of people out there that it would be quite impossible for them to do it.

“I had to learn how to do everything again. Outside of just walking, I had to learn how to go to the bathroom, how to brush my teeth, how to put makeup on, I had a two hour session on how to make a cup of coffee and it is quite literally picking things up and smashing glasses and pouring milk all over kitchen benches and you have to learn how to do it, as you would teach a young child to make a cup of coffee, and they’ve got two hands that would work. I had to learn how to do it with prosthetic limbs.”

She said it was important that people with a disability were involved in the process, as the first solutions were not always the right ones.

“These design students often, they come in and they think of an idea that is going to fix the problem but it may not look attractive, it might be bulky or cumbersome, it might be hard to clean, certainly the first solution that they put forward may not be the right one, so it is great for me to be able to go no, go back, make it sleeker, make it easier to use, make it smaller,” McCracken said.

“To be actually a part of the team and very much a part of the process is really important, because I think if these guys were just to make a solution without my input, or any of the other need knowers input, what they would come up with may actually be quite different and may not always be something that is actually going to fix the problem.”

She said she would encourage anyone with an idea or an issue they cannot find a solution for to get involved.

“They might be fixing a solution for one person but with the ability to put it on the internet, you could be helping thousands of people out there,” she said.

“Certainly I’ve noticed in the amputee world, all of us are connected over the internet and on social media, so if I can find a solution here in Melbourne, I’ve got friends in the US and in Europe that would easily be able to get that made for them over there as well, and to do it at minimal cost is really important.

“It shouldn’t cost you money to put milk in your coffee. You shouldn’t have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to have that skill.”

To date, more than 250 prototypes have been developed through TOM Marathons globally.

Dadon, who brought the initiative to Melbourne, said it was an opportunity to fulfil the lives of deserving need knowers, and create affordable technological solutions where market forces had failed.

She told Pro Bono News the hope was that the solutions would be of use to other people with a disability and have the potential to be produced commercially.

“Obviously you are assisting the person who is there in front of you with the challenge but the whole idea is that any product goes into open source, and all the TOMS have that around the world,” Dadon said.

“It has to be documented completely and everything goes into open source, so it is ideally for a wider application.

“Anyone around the world could pick that up and develop that product further and tweak it in any way to perfect it, they can then paste it and put it into manufacturing for distribution.”

She said she had wanted to bring the initiative to Melbourne ever since she first saw a TOM makeathon in Israel.

“I just thought it was an incredible atmosphere at the first TOM that I saw in Israel, probably almost three years ago now in Tel Aviv… they had all these amazing volunteers working on solving a challenge that a person with a disability had put forward, and what I thought was great was they had the person with the disability right there so they were working with that person,” Dadon said.

“So my friend who showed me through, Gidi Grinstein, the founder of the Reut Institute where TOM comes from, said to me, ‘Oh you have to bring this to Australia’, and at the time I was the CEO at my family foundation, The Besen Family Foundation, so I had a full time job.

“But I stepped down as CEO later that year and moved into the chair role at Besen Family Foundation, so I had more time and I thought about, what initiatives am I personally interested in doing and definitely TOM was one of them, and that was when I started.

“I met with Gidi, he had moved to New York by then, because he is rolling out the TOM makeathons in America, and I said to him I would love to bring it to Australia. That was early last year and we had our first one in December last year. It was great.”

Dadon, who also hopes to bring the initiative to Sydney, said there was a huge appetite for people to be involved in something that can “genuinely make a difference”.

“Having someone there with the lived experience to me just seemed just fantastic,” she said.

“Often problem solving of this nature is theoretical and the people who benefit from the outcomes remain quite removed from the process. The opportunity for the Makers to meet these people and develop solutions alongside them is really inspiring.”

The 2017 TOM: Melbourne Makeathon takes place from 1 to 3 December. For more information see here.

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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