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Enabling independence and rehabilitation through the use of assistive technology.

In this guest article we speak to Steve Wiseman and Emma Taylor from Steve Wiseman Associates Ltd, who enable independence and rehabilitation through the use of assistive technology for people who are living with a wide range of disabilities. 

Steve was previously a social worker and worked as a brain injury case manager, managing the care and rehabilitation of clients. With a background in technology, Steve saw an opportunity to provide life enhancing technology solutions for people who had suffered brain injuries and launched the company in 2001.

Emma qualified as an occupational therapist in 1994 and works as an associate at Steve Wiseman Associates Ltd. She visits and assesses clients in their home and uses her activity analysis skills to review clients in their own environment to gauge what they can and want to do; and where technology can fit in, if at all.

Steve Wiseman Associates work with a wide range of clients, “…we work with adults and children and a range of disabilities, from brain injury, spinal injury, visual impairment and hearing impairment. Most of our referrals come from case managers, solicitors and occupational therapists, we also occasionally get a self-funder” explains Steve.

As a team, they are dedicated to recommending and providing solutions for their clients that best meet their individual needs and promote independence.

“Referrals can involve helping a young child in developing their use of technology to help them communicate”, says Steve. “In these cases, we can recommend technology such as eye gaze, which enables the control of a communication device by means of eyes alone. Once we have met with a client and their family, we often find that we can widen the brief, for example using the technology to not only communicate, but to control lights and play music. In many cases, this can encourage and motivate a child to communicate with a wider range of people than just their immediate family.”

Assessment

Once a referral has been made, an associate will visit clients and their family at home and complete a comprehensive assessment. If the client is a child, an assessment at their school or college will also be completed, whenever possible.

After the client’s needs and requirements have been identified, the appropriate technology can be recommended. “Technology has moved on massively in recent years” explains Steve. “In most cases, the assistive technology that is required is available to buy, plus it often has a multifunctional use however, if something is specifically needed, our team are also really good at designing and building a bespoke technological solution. Recently, Russ adapted a water pistol to enable it to be used by a child who is unable to squeeze a trigger.

The increasing use of ‘mainstream’ technology by people living with disabilities is helping to make homes accessible by all. Popular devices, such as the Amazon Echo and Google Nest are proving to be a useful and readily available tool, that can be connected to assistive technology such as the eye gaze and used to operate doors, control lights and even run a vacuum.

Environmental Controls

As an occupational therapist with a background in housing and adaptations, Emma has seen a rise in environmental controls in people’s properties.

“I have always been interested in the use of environmental controls in people’s homes”, says Emma, who is often instructed to help on projects to help with adaptations when the existing OT doesn’t have the required knowledge or there is no OT, “there are only a few specialist environmental control companies and so I tend to work as a conduit between them and the client to ensure that what is provided is what the client needs, and also that the client can control what is provided.

By working closely with the client, their family, architects, builders and specialist electronic companies and suppliers, Steve Wiseman Associates use their expertise to identify not only the technology that a person will benefit from, but also how they will be able to control it. “Some people can control their technology through voice, touch or by using something like the eye gaze” explains Emma.

Evolving technology

As with all technology, assistive technology is constantly evolving and improving to empower those living with disabilities. New solutions, designed to eliminate or reduce barriers are launching all the time.

“As a team, we are always on the look out for new technology and regularly share our ideas”, says Steve. “It is almost impossible to keep up with everything in the field of assistive technology and a whole raft of devices are now available in the mainstream that can also be adapted.” The consultants at Steve Wiseman are dedicated to finding the most appropriate solutions for their clients, “We have had to learn that it is ok to not always have the answer immediately, but to take the time and go away and do the research.”

The most recent example is Haptic Clothing, which creates wearable garments that communicate non-verbally, using tactile, technological intelligence. “This technology vibrates and could be used to alert a person to do a particular task, or even to be used as part of sensory therapies.”

Future of Assistive Technology

As mainstream technology has improved it has become far more inclusive, “Using technology to support day-to-day activities has become the norm and is no longer exclusively used by those living with disabilities,” explains Emma, “we’re now starting to see a wider understanding and acceptance of its capabilities, and the use of technology has been normalised.”

Installing smart technology in a home that everyone can use, enhances its inclusivity, this can be down to simple adaptations, such as gaming controls that enable a child to play computer games alongside their siblings and friends.

Although mainstream technology is being used by those with disabilities, it is not always the best solution, and it is vital that the technology recommended is the best fit for the client based on their cognitive and motor abilities.

“Part of our role is to really understand the needs of the client,” says Emma, “some technology on the market, targeted at the mainstream is too complex for some of clients - they need to be able to use it independently.”

With technological advances, there are some exciting and innovating new technologies being developed that would benefit and improves the lives of many.

One example is the ‘brain computer music interface (BCMI)’, “In this collaboration between Plymouth University and Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability in, explains Steve, “patients interacted with musicians through the BCMI for a world-first musical performance which used brainwave signals detected by electrodes placed on the scalp to enable the patients to select musical phrases which were played by a string quartet in real time..”

Steve also thinks that the innovative use of artificial intelligence (AI) will also evolve to help create a better quality of life for those living with a disability.

“ One example we are already seeing is the development of natural language processing algorithms. This has enabled increasingly accurate reproduction of dictation, but also the possibility of a more natural interaction between humans and smart speakers.  Smart speakers have been a game-changer for those with disabilities which previously prevented easy access to music, TV, media generally.”

The pandemic saw a sudden rise in the use of Zoom, for work and pleasure. But this technology was something that Steve and his team had been using long before the Covid lockdown. “As a team, we are based in different parts of the country, so we had been using Zoom to communicate for quite some time”, explains Emma, “now more than ever, there is huge scope and potential for this technology to replace typical appointments, with patients able to see their GP without unnecessary travel.”

Assistive technology is evolving daily and is the driving force in improving the lives of people who live with disabilities.

“When designing homes for people, it is important to know the client and their immediate and potential future needs. Homes need to be future proofed, and the design team must appreciate the value of the clinical input of assistive technology”, says Emma.

As well as having a clinical or teaching background, many of the team at Steve Wiseman Associates have additional skills such as music, art and ergonomics and so they offer a broad skill set. “For most of us, our career overlaps with our hobby, so we’re lucky enough to have a job that we genuinely love.” explains Steve.

Steve Wiseman + Emma Taylor

Steve Wiseman + Emma Taylor

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