With the Paralympic Games now underway in London, a spotlight is shining squarely on a host of new technologies allowing disabled athletes to compete at elite levels. Scientists may soon even be able to design artificial limbs that outpace human performance.
Though the Paralympics have been held since 1960 during years the Olympics are held, it has only been recently that they have become a showcase for technologies in development with potential applications beyond just prosthetics. Researchers and inspired entrepreneurs have been working on narrowing the gap between those with disabilities and those without. Thanks to new technologies, more and more things most of us take for granted are now possible and accessible to those less fortunate.
An inspiring example of how technology provides solutions to difficult situations met by people is the work of Neil Harbisson. Born with a condition called Achromatopsia – a severe color blindness disorder where he can only see black, white and shades of gray – Harbisson has developed what he calls an “eyeborg.” By combining studies of music and cybernetic organisms, he created a sensor that converts colors into sounds thereby allowing people with color blindness to improve their perception of the world. The eyeborg not only allows users to distinguish different colors, but thanks to the specific scale of frequencies, permits a high number of color gradations to be discerned.
Another great new technology to help the disabled comes from a small nonprofit called Benetech. They have created a website, Bookshare.org, where people suffering from dyslexia or visual impairment can access a high number of books in digital formats, primarily audio and digital braille. Each page is scanned, then processed through an optical character recognition program and finally recorded into an audio file. Benetech also provides iPhone, iPad and Android apps that give users access to the files anywhere they get cell phone service. Founded 10 years ago, the website now offers more than 150.000 downloadable titles free of charge for students of all ages.
The Paralympic Games are a theater of great achievements made possible by a combination of hard work and science. Though these advancements are just a few examples among hundreds of technology improving performance and quality of life for people with disabilities, the real winners are all of us who may benefit from their many potential applications in the future.