New & Emerging

Covid 19 & Disability Innovation

In the space of a few short months Covid-19  has impacted almost all aspects of our daily lives, changing the way we interact, work, shop, travel and live. Across the globe we are finding new ways to do things, ways to adapt our businesses, remain relevant to our customers, support our loved ones and educate our kids.

It seems each day there is a new challenge to solve.  In many cases we have needed to pivot, reasses, be more flexible, rely on our friends, be more patient,  find a little more ingenuity.  But some challenges have seemed insurmountable and a solution feels ever out of reach. We wonder if we will ever be able to do the things we love, when we want, how we want with the people we care about.

For the first time the world is experiencing feelings and actions which are not dissimilar to those felt by the adaptive community on a daily basis. The need to adapt, do things differently, be patient, be flexible and rely on others are ‘everyday’ realities for those living with a disability.  Throw a pandemic in the mix and a whole new set of challenges arise. In the worlds rush for “innovation” to solve these new “pandemic” problems just how much attention is being given to accessible design for the disabled?

Face Masks

Since the beginning of Covid-19 the world has seen an unprecendented demand for face masks. Covering our faces to protect from potential infection creates a whole range of new challenges for many people within our community. When we cover our faces we limit our ability to lip read, understand non verbal cues like facial expressions and emotions which help us interpret information, develop rapport and connect with each other. 

This can be particulary challenging for the hearing impaired, elderly, interpretors and translators, first responders, those living with an Autism Spectrum Disorder and people of different language backgrounds. Unique solutions by everyday individuals are leading the way to support these community groups. 

Mask-clad commuters during morning rush hour in Tokyo.
Mask-clad commuters during morning rush hour in Tokyo. Photographer: Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images

21 Year old Ashley Lawrence who studies education for the Deaf and hearing impaired at Eastern Kentucky University saw a need when she realised there were no masks catering for those with a hearing impairment who relied on sign language and lip reading to communicate. With the help of her mother, Ashley began sewing face masks with plastic windows over the mouth area to enable this community to communicate more freely.

Ashley set up a Go Fund me page quickly reaching her target of almost $4000 to help fund shipping and handling to enable her to provide free masks to those in need in her community.  Ashley plans to release her face mask plans to You Tube to enable anyone to replicate her design. 

Prototype Companies such as The Clear Mask have developed the worlds first fully transparent face mask to allow better communication between hospital staff and patients. Despite awaiting FDA approval Clear Mask has been cleared to provide masks to help meet overwhelming demand during the COVID-19 pandemic  in situations where FDA cleared masks are not available. We can only hope transparent masks become an everyday healthcare staple within ICU, Surgical Wards and during infectious disease outbreaks ensuring greater inclusion for all. 

Ashley Lawrence and her mum wearing clear face masks
Ashley Lawrence and her Mum wearing clear face masks they designed.
Clear Mask - Clear Surgical Mask
Clear Mask. Full clear surgical face mask. Image- Clear Mask
Sanitary Door Openers

Opening and closing heavy doors can be a challenge when you are living with upper limb weakness, fine or gross motor difficulties, have a short stature or have your hands occupied with a walking aid.

One silver lining during COVID-19 is the increase in innovative door opening design. Companies intending to find ways to limit contact with door handles to slow the spread of the virus, unintentionally provide a hidden secondary benefit, increasing the ease of opening doors for some members of the adaptive community.

CleanSwitch is a contact-less switch that uses modern cutting edge sensor technology to open and close doors in strict hygiene environments like hospitals, bathrooms and restaurants. Combined with an automatic door opener these switches ensure hygienic access and improved accessibility.

Clean Switch can also be linked with mobile phones and wireless – blue tooth technology for hands free entry at home to improve accessibility for the elderly or disabled. As our homes and businesses become more and more ‘smart enabled’ an unprecented amount of automatic, voice activated options are entering the market offering huge benefits for those with functional difficulties.

Materialise a 3D printing company in Belgium has released open source 3D printing designs which enable you to use a covered arm to open the door rather than a bare hand. Hands Free Architecture has similarly released a range of 3D printed lever options to increase hygienic door opening.

New foot pedals and foot pull designs via makerspaces and community innovations such as the Instructables Workshop encourage creatives and innovators to create affordable, easy to install temporary solutions which may have applications for those living with a disability.


Rise of Telehealth

As countries search for ways to provide “safe and effective” healthcare to their citizens whilst also protecting first responders and healthcare personell from COVID-19, Telehealth services are grappling to expand their offerings to cater for increasing demand. Telehealth has long been used to support the health care needs of rural residents to help overcome the challenges of travel, transport, limited local specialist professionals and time.  Most hospitals in Australia provide some kind of “short term” Telehealth service to patients living outside metropolitan areas to assist access to specialist care and follow up post discharge. 

These types of services have for the most part been limited for GP,s. Allied Health, Mental Health Care and Pharmaceuticals. Isolation and difficulty accessing healthcare services has long been a challenge for people living with a disability despite the obvious benefits telehealth provides. 

The Australian Government recently announced a $100 million to fund Telehealth under a new Medicare Service which includes GP services, medical specialists, nurse practitioners, mental health treatment, chronic disease management, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health assessments, services to people with eating disorders, pregnancy support counselling, services to patients in aged care facilities, children with autism, and after-hours consultations. 

The plan also offers incentives for Health Professionals to include Telehealth options within their practices. Covid -19 may provide the tipping point we need to provide more inclusive and ongoing access to telehealth for those living with a disability. You can now book your GP appointment online, have a virtual telehealth consult, receive a script and have your pharmacy deliver your medication to your door without leaving your home. Rapid adoption of telehealth across healthcare services suggests these may remain in place for the long term for those who really need them.

Telehealth Technology is suddenly at the forefront of innovation and companies are looking to create affordable ways to bring telehealth to the masess. Massive growth in applications like Zoom, Houseparty, Skype and other web conferencing platforms face new challenges, often unable to meet the highly stringent privacy requirements for medical consultations. Access to technology, interpreters, ASL signing, budget, support workers and face to face connection are other barriers to ensuring high quality communication, collaboration and clinical care. 

Covid -19  has accelerated investment into Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Voice activation and Mind Controlled Telehealth and Telepresence which potentially hold the key to improving accessibility and quality of healthcare worldwide.