‘Assistive technology’ is the entire arsenal of resources and services that contribute to provide functional abilities to people with movement impairments, promoting independent living and social inclusion. 
April 18th, 2016
by Erik Nardini Medina *
PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES – A PANORAMA
The “Handbook of Census 2010 – People with Disabilities”, the latest national survey on the topic produced in Brazil, offers a panorama of people with vision, hearing, mobility, mental and intellectual impairments.
The document, published in 2012 by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), reveals that 23.9% of the population (45,606,048 people) has some kind of disability among the five categories mentioned, and 7% suffer from some form of motor dysfunction.
ASSISTIVE DEVICES – WE NEED MANY MORE
The agents working nowadays with assistive technologies are not few. In addition to the private sector, the very own World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes that “more than one billion assistive products” are needed today, and that the number will rise to “more than two billion in 2050”.
In an important initiative, inspired by the successful “Essential Drugs List”, the organization developed the “Model List of Priority Assistive Products“, open to public responses, which aimed to compose a list of 50 essential products for people with some kind deficiency. Find out more by clicking here.
WHAT ARE THE RESEARCHERS DOING?
A lot, we would say! At first, it may seem that scientific development is progressing slowly, but we must know that there is an active community of researchers working intensively on the development of machines that may radically change the autonomy of people with disabilities.
When such equipment will arrive in the market is still unknown. Science, after all, is also an exercise in patience.
AN AMAZING ROBOTIC WHEELCHAIR
One of the most important assistive projects underway in Brazil takes place in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering (FEEC) at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp).
A team of researchers, now working with the Brazilian Institute of Neuroscience and Neurotechnology (BRAINN), develops a prototype of a robotic wheelchair that can be controlled by head and facial movements.
“We do research on several fronts, including technologies that respond to facial expressions, other from visual stimuli (eyetracking), driven by voice, and, finally, technologies based on Brain-Computer Interface (BCI), which is able to convert electrical pulses into brain commands, recognizable by computers”, explains Professor Eleri Cardozo, a member of the team. It is so advanced it sound like science fiction.
The researcher reveals that there is no forecast for when the prototype will reach the market, but the ambitions of those involved generate enormous expectations.
“The laboratory tests are essential so that we can produce a comfortable equipment, one that can be used all the time, in a natural way,” said Cardozo.
“Our expectation is not to launch a fully-functional wheelchair, but to put what’s best of all this technology in a module that can be installed in common wheelchairs, that is, something that the person already has”, he continues.
ASSISTIVE AND AFFORDABLE
Cardozo expects that the module, when released, will be more accessible than other chairs now on the market. Eleri is used to receiving requests from people all over the country looking to buy the technology, so he emphatically explains that there is no forecast of when the product will be released.
In the future, public health policies might subsidize part of the cost (or even the total cost) of such technologies, but this is something that can only be discussed in depth when the assistive wheelchair is, in fact, available.
 Bersch e Tonolli
* Journalist graduated from the Pontifical Catholic University of Campinas (PUC-Campinas), student of Science Journalism specialization at the Advanced Studies in Journalism Laboratory (Labjor / Unicamp). Has a MídiaCiência / FAPESP scholarship.