Edmonton Journal: Researchers use robotics to improve mobility for children with physical disabilities

“If a child has a physical impairment and they can’t use their own hands to manipulate toys, they miss out on a lot of opportunities for growth,” said Kim Adams, a professor at the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine. “They don’t feel how they are affecting the environment.”

Adams is part of an interdisciplinary team composed of medical and engineering experts, who are recruiting subjects for a trial phase that will test out robotic equipment on children with disabilities. 

In the laboratory, Adams points to a metal arm with an attached synthetic hand hovering over a tray of dry macaroni pasta. Sand wasn’t an option because it’s hard on robot gears, she explains with a laugh. With the press of a button, children with disabilities such as cerebral palsy will be able take control of the robot arm to pick up a cup and scoop the pasta.

It’s a typical exercise that isn’t possible for everyone. 

“When students are able to affect their physical environment, it’s so exciting,” said Adams, who generally works with children between the ages of three and seven.

The three-year project, which launched in 2014, is working with commercially available robotic technology.

“We want to use those sorts of access methods to control robots,” Adams said. “But the thing that’s been missing has been sensing.”

Alejandra Ruiz, a visiting Mitacs Globalink research student from Universidad de Guadalajara in Mexico, contributed a psychological research perspective to the project with the goal of helping to fill that gap.

“It has to do with cognition. Kids with disabilities might have cognitive impairments because they don’t have these experiences … robots can help improve their knowledge of things and exploring,” she said, adding that the robots can create the sense of force and resistance when children try to interact with objects.

“I was interested in how to match robots with kids with physical disabilities … so that they can have more experience directly with the environment.”

Robotic technology offers people with disabilities a way to expand their horizons, but because families have to pay for these options privately, the dream of improved mobility is often out of reach, Adams said. State-of-the-art robotic arms can cost $15,000.

“That’s another battle,” she said, adding that once technology becomes mainstream, the market opens up to make more options available. Voice-recognition technology was first invented to help people with spinal cord injuries communicate, she said.

In the past, Adams has experimented with robots made from Lego, which has yielded promising results for only a few hundred dollars.

“They’re inexpensive and you can program them without having an engineering degree; that way parents can take them home,” she said.

Incorporating robots into homes and schoolrooms could help give children with disabilities access to experiences they might miss out on otherwise. 

“Because technology is becoming more accessible, price-wise … there is going to be a big leap forward for people who have disabilities. Things are more feasible,” she said.

Byline: Clare Clancy