Would you purchase a basic digital camera connected to a 22″ LCD monitor for $3,000?

How about a GPS unit to announce your location for $800?

Unfortunately, a hugely overlooked segment of the population has no choice but to pay these prices for outdated technology – namely, people with disabilities.

furenexo graph

Commercial technology has taken off in recent years while assistive tech has remained flat in both innovation and competition. The gap between those two curves is opportunity. The Maker community is in a position to access and transform this market and significantly impact many lives in positive ways long before the major manufacturers intend to devote their focus.

We at Furenexo believe it’s time for Makers to become advocates, and recently launched our Kickstarter campaign to develop low-cost, highly accessible assistive technology using open source hardware and software. We see an amazing opportunity to empower Makers to become “enableists”, and make better things — and things better — for our world.

Why Make Assistive Devices?

– Because advances like Arduino, 3D printing, and object/face/voice recognition are making concepts that were only pipe dreams a few years ago possible.
– Because the challenges faced by people with disabilities have been ignored for so long and any progress could have a deep impact.
– Because nobody needs an “Uber for dry-cleaning” or yet another disco light set-up for Burning Man.
– Because engaging with disability at any level could be a personal challenge outside your comfort zone.
– Because around 49 million Americans (3.8 million of whom are veterans) are affected by some physical or sensory impairment. The economic impact of even slightly reducing some of these challenges people with disabilities face could be profound.
– Because just making something to help a neighbor could earn you a smile and thank you to light up your day, and every day.

How Do I Start?

1) Extend your “designer mind”.
Many of you already approach making with the mindset of form-follows-function. You build tools or projects tailored for how you wish to use them. Adjust this slightly to consider how those same devices would work for someone else – in particular someone who requires a wheelchair, or may not have use of their hands or even their eyes. It’s often easiest to envision a friend or loved one and ask yourself, “How would Nana handle this?” or, “How would my neighbor, John, use what I’m making?”

2) Ask and engage – don’t assume.
This is a terrific general rule that becomes even more crucial when working with people from disabilities communities. If you want to create something for a neighbor or friend – be sure to get their feedback before, during and after the process. Many physical issues a person with disability deals with every day could thus be uncovered and incorporated into your design plans. Just as important, in some cases the person with a disability may be embarrassed to have their disability pointed out, particularly if they work hard to main their independence. It’s quite possible that they’d rather not have the attention until they have established a trusting relationship with you.

3) Add to your skill set.
Coursera and Thingiverse are fairly well known. But new platforms like furenexo.com have emerged to solve real issues for people with disabilities, along with ideas and open source solutions that need your improvement and collaboration.

4) Bring solving a disability challenge into your day job.
Technology advancements are unlocking new approaches to design that have never existed before. For one, the notion that designing for the most challenged individuals will lend solutions to other products is now a reality.

If a seat is designed to be comfortable enough for a wheelchair-bound person to use for 16 hours, what airline or furniture manufacturer wouldn’t want to check it out? A system for enabling blind individuals to “read” signs or warnings in their neighborhood could certainly be incorporated into driverless cars.

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SoundSense uses vibrations to give people with hearing impairments more information about the world around them.

Where you can make a difference is remembering that the design approach doesn’t work in reverse. Designing enhancements purely for luxury cars will not lead to that newfangled wheelchair or enhanced in-home experience for people with disabilities.