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Minds on the matter

Flourish 16 Jan 2017

A special event in Melbourne brought together Australia’s brightest designers and engineers to solve challenges for people with disability.

Photo of three TOM contestants

Stacey Christie needs to do a bit of detective work before she leaves home. If she’s heading to a restaurant, a shop or any other building, she needs to know whether her destination is wheelchair accessible. If she can’t get in – which occurs more often than not – her frustration is palpable.

“Electric wheelchairs like mine weigh about 150 kilograms. They are really heavy. It’s not as though someone can just lift the wheelchair, which makes it impossible to enter or exit a store that has even one step,” Stacey says.

“It feels a lot like segregation, really. You just can’t get to places.”

Stacey, 23, has muscular dystrophy. She’s been left behind at stations because train drivers haven’t provided a ramp for her to board. She’s had to abandon social catch-ups, courses, even potential jobs, because they were in buildings that weren’t accessible.

But Stacey has a plan – she wants to create a selfoperated portable device that will enable her and her wheelchair to get up a kerb or a step when there’s no ramp. She got the chance to make that plan a step closer to reality during the inaugural TOM Melbourne event late last year.

TOM, or Tikkun Olam Makers, is a global non-profit movement that began in Israel. The idea, says Michal Kabatznik, TOM’s Creator of Global Opportunities, was to learn how to use modern technology to improve people’s lives.

“We wanted to bring tech experts together with people in need and together they would create specific solutions to practical challenges,” she says. “We decided to focus on the area of disabilities because it’s a global issue, one that a lot of traditional markets aren’t really paying attention to,” Michal says.

The first TOM event was held in Israel in 2014. Since then, an overwhelming international response has seen events take place in 12 countries.

Melbourne hosted the 15th TOM make-a-thon, an event that saw “need knowers”, people with disabilities or challenges such as Stacey’s, connect with “makers”, or people with engineering, tech and design skills.

In the lead-up to TOM Melbourne, makers and need knowers met up to six times throughout November. During the event, they caught up for a three-day make-a-thon at Swinburne University in Hawthorn, where they began using cutting-edge technology to build working prototypes.

“Every part of the TOM make-a-thon can continue to be developed so it can reach as many people as possible,” says Michal. “If we solve someone’s challenge in Melbourne, it would mean that anywhere around the world, people with that same challenge would have access to the solution.”

This commitment to open-source development is one of the things that impressed Richard Prideaux, General Manager of Home & Disability Services in Victoria and South Australia at Australian Unity.

Australian Unity is a sponsor of TOM Melbourne, and Richard says the decision to support the event was an easy one.

“One of the best things about TOM is that it helps people with disability to achieve their goals. That’s what we also aspire to do through our services, so for that reason we were very keen to support the event.”

Dr Oren Tirosh lectures in biomechanics and clinical gait analysis at Swinburne University and was one of the team involved in making Stacey’s project a reality. He’s interested in how people integrate with wheelchairs and what wheelchair users’ difficulties and needs are.

“Wheelchairs are very heavy; they’re not agile, they don’t go on and off ramps easily, sometimes turning isn’t easy, and they’re quite big,” he says.

“Current wheelchairs aren’t a perfect solution; there’s a need to improve wheelchairs and accessibility.”

Stacey’s team was made up of makers from different disciplines, including engineering students and occupational therapists.

“TOM brings a lot of people from different cultures and communities together, all working to try and find a simple solution,” Oren says.

Another need knower is Jack Leighton, 22, who has cerebral palsy and walks with crutches. His challenge is to be able to use his crutches as a seat – so that trips to places such as bookshops and museums don’t become exhausting.

“We came up with that because when I walk around too much my feet really hurt and seats can be hard to find,” Jack says. “Being able to turn the crutches into something I can sit down on would be great – it’d mean no more sore feet, and more exercise without getting tired.”

Meanwhile, Stacey is working in social media and customer service at the EW Tipping Foundation. She studied fashion design at university, and dreams of one day releasing an accessible clothing line for people with disabilities. She’s travelling to Europe this year, and hopes the portable ramp – or something similar – comes to fruition.

“We all worked together to come up with ideas, and there were so many floating around in the lead up to the conference. The team initially thought of something that could be added on to the wheelchair, or some kind of a lightweight portable ramp,” she says.

“It was amazing that TOM came to Melbourne. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s the first time anything like this had been in Australia, and that’s great.”

TOM contestant Mandy McCracken on the bicycle

Pedal Power for an Active Mother

Mandy McCracken would love to be able to ride a bicycle. An attack of the streptococcal A bacteria three years ago left her with restricted use of her arms and legs. She’s been back driving for a few months, which she says “opens up a whole new world of possibilities”, but a bicycle would mean so much more.

“Since I got sick, being out and about with my family has taken on a whole different perspective. I’ve got three little girls and to be able to go and have an afternoon with them has become a lot more difficult,” Mandy says.

“If we’re going to do any sort of exercise or activity, it often leaves me on the sidelines. Having a bike would mean that I could be included in what they are up to. It sounds so simple, but for me it’s a really complicated thing to do.”

To ride a bicycle, even a recumbent one, you have to be able to bend your knees past 90 degrees. Mandy, who lives in Kilmore in Victoria, can’t do that; she shattered both kneecaps in the process of learning to walk again, and her prosthetics make riding “near impossible”.

Her husband, Rod, used to be a high school teacher and heard about the TOM program from a former student. Mandy was encouraged by her initial meetings with the design team.

“I want to be able to ride a bike along a regular bike track on a Sunday afternoon and look like I’m part of the furniture. I don’t want to stand out. I don’t want a bike that looks custom-made to match my disability,” Mandy says.

words Hari Raj

photography Mark Munro

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Information

To find out more about the solutions TOM created for people living with disability see tomglobal.org


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