The Evolution of Adaptation
For many of us, the excitement of the recent summer Olympiad in London is still a fresh memory. There were countless enduring images from the games as newly minted heroes emerged and long-standing records fell. One of those images was of South African runner Oscar Pistorius, who became the first double-leg amputee to compete in the Olympics. Pistorius, running with his special carbon fiber "blade" prosthetics, competed in the 400m running event and the 4X400m relay.
In September, Pistorius competed in another sporting event: the Paralympic Games. This major multi-sport event takes place following the Olympics during both the summer and winter games and includes world-class athletes with physical and intellectual disabilities. The Paralympics are an important event for many reasons; not only do they provide a forum for athletes to showcase their talent, but they also provide an incentive for developing adaptive technology that breaks down the barriers of disability.
Dr. Rory Cooper is a National Science Foundation-funded distinguished professor in the University of Pittsburgh's Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology and has his name on several U.S. patents related to adaptive technology. His team researches and develops wheelchair technology along with other assistive devices. According to Cooper, wheelchair technology has been making increasing strides, with both the United Kingdom and China elevating its status through their hosting of the last two Paralympic games. He says the technology of sports wheelchairs is moving towards an increased use of carbon fiber (as opposed to metals) and expects it to be the predominant build material in the next five to ten years.
One event that Cooper's team has focused on is wheelchair rugby. Originally known as "murderball," it has quickly become one of the most popular sports in the Paralympics. Wheelchair rugby is a full-contact team event where high-speed metal-on-metal collisions are the norm and having an extremely durable and maneuverable chair is paramount. Rugby chairs are designed with a low center of gravity and angled wheels to make them more difficult to knock over.
A former Paralympian who competed in wheelchair racing at the 1988 Paralympics in Seoul, South Korea, Cooper also analyzes wheelchairs for both racing and basketball. Common innovations for chairs in these sports include improving ergonomics, making them lighter and stronger, and building them specifically for individual body types.
While much of Cooper's work on sports equipment is placed in the public domain, so that it can be utilized by the relatively small market and small businesses that produce the technology, he is a co-inventor of six U.S. patented devices and has several pending applications. The subject of patent number 6,276,705 for "an ergonomic dual surface wheelchair pushrim" is often used in basketball wheelchairs, as is the subject of patent number 8,264,458 for a "variable compliance joystick with compensation algorithms." Both inventions give users improved control over the wheelchair.
From a social perspective, Cooper says the innovations in adaptive technology drive people to look at the beauty of the sport instead of the disability of the individual participant. Innovation also helps the athlete change his or her perception of the self, allowing the individual to integrate more seamlessly into society. In the coming years, Cooper foresees many more sports, from field hockey to triathlon events, becoming available at the Paralympics as a result of the advances in wheelchair technology.
The innovations used by the athletes at the Paralympic games raise the bar for adaptive technology, and this technology in turn challenges all of us to rethink the word "disability." When we watch Oscar Pistorius blaze across the track at speeds few humans can achieve, or when wheelchair rugby players charge at each other with the same force of NFL running backs, it's hard to imagine any sort of limited ability. Technology and innovation allow human beings who are born with differences-or acquire them along the way-to contribute, compete, and excel at the highest levels humanly possible.
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, a time to reflect on the many contributions that people with disabilities have made not just to the workforce, but also to society in general.
-Supervisory Patent Examiner William Vaughn contributed to this article.
-Photo by Jim Thurston, taken during the first round of the 400m at the London 2012 Olympic Games.