More than a Wheelchair

Last class, we made the presentation about assistive technology. However, personally, I don’t have much teaching experience working with people with disabilities and assistive technology. There were university students asking for accommodations, but most of the time, they handled learning themselves. Another experience that I work with people with disabilities was that I volunteered at the Wascana Rehabilitation assisting with music therapy. Not too many technologies being used during the therapy, but iPad and audio sets were used to play music. I assisted some residents there to play the instrument, which, maybe can be called as no tech or low tech.

Since I don’t have experience teaching with assistive technology, the only example I can think about is Dr. Stevin Hawking’s wheelchair. Steven Hawking is so popular in China. It seems every Chinese people, as long as they went to school, knows him. I remembered in my high school English textbook, there was a text telling his story surviving with the deadly disease and his genius work in physics and cosmology. In April 2016, he started Weibo (something like twitter) and communicated with Chinese people. Some interesting comments were like “Oh mum, I am speaking with the best brain in the world.”

QQ截图20181116232648Dr. Hawking also appears in American TV dramas, which made him even more liked by Chinese fans.


Photo recourse

I decided to choose him and his wheelchair as an introduction of the topic, as I think his wheelchair was a genius assistive technology that helped this genius cosmologist to work. This wheelchair, which is said that can “read Dr. Hawking’s brain waves”, was sold for $393,000 at auction after he passed away.  Then how did this expensive wheelchair work? How can it read the most genius and complicated brain waves?

“Hawking has just a small amount of motor function left, mainly in the muscles of his face. His link to the world is provided by the computer technology built into his wheelchair. Incredibly, Professor Hawking controls all the functions of his Windows tablet PC using just a single switch – imagine operating your PC using nothing but the spacebar! Hawking’s PC uses a special interface called EZ Keys, which scans across each letter of the on-screen keyboard, one at a time. When Hawking moves his cheek, a sensor detects the movement and the computer halts the scanner and picks that letter. He can also use this process to scan from one button or menu item to the next, and so control his email program (Eudora), web browser (Firefox) or even make calls over Skype.” ——(How Stephen Hawking’s wheelchair works) A synthesizer that created Hawking’s robotic tones so that he can “speak” with people. It felt like the computer build in his wheelchair can directly read his brain waves.

Furthermore, as Hawking’s physical condition gradually deteriorates, his typing speed has dropped to just one or two words per minute. Scientists at Intel compensate using algorithms tailored to Hawking’s vocabulary and writing style, which accurately predict which words he will want to use next. I won’t be surprised that one day the computer can directly read from our brain waves and type what we want to say.

Imagine, if there was not such a high-tech wheelchair assisting him, what a loss the world would suffer from? BBC commented his life like this:  “The nerves that controlled his muscles were failing and he became trapped in his body, but his mind was still free. He reached the height of his field while being a wheelchair user and communicating through a synthetic voice.

That may be my wish for future technologies. I hope people with disabilities can still live to their fullest life and be free in mind no matter how their body is trapped. They can still think, and talk and write down what they are thinking. Great minds would benefit from these technologies, which contribute to the whole human being’s welfare. 

Advantages would be, genius people are free from physical disabilities, and can continuing focus on scientific or other academic researches.  In this way, they make contributions to all human beings. Apparently, disadvantages are these technologies will be expected extraordinary expensive. Normal people may have no access to these technologies for their daily life and learning. Only a few people similar to Dr. Hwking can get sponsored. 

At last, I want to quote what Prof Hawking’s only advice on disability in an interview with the New York Times. “My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Don’t be disabled in spirit, as well as physically“. Anyway, with the help and development of technologies, this can always be and worth being expected.

This entry was posted in EC&I 833 2018 Fall. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to More than a Wheelchair

  1. Thanks for your post, Haiming. I always enjoy reading information on Stephen Hawking as he is an amazing example of human resiliency. It is truly amazing what assistive technologies (like Hawking’s wheelchair) can do for people who require support to function in their day-to-day. I didn’t realize he was so popular in China. This is also a testament to his ability to reach all kinds of people (through technology like the internet), no matter what their walk of life or location.

    Liked by 1 person


  3. Wow,
    Great read.
    Love how you connected assistive tech to Steven Hawking!!!


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