A finger splint being created on a 3D printer.

Disabled entrepreneurs and new technology

With 3D printing technology advancing at a staggering rate we’re still riding the crest of the digital fabrication wave, but what is its potential for changing people’s lives?

Digital fabrication is growing fast in popularity. It allows anyone with a computer and a 3D printer to produce three-dimensional objects from computer files, and these files can be sent and downloaded from anywhere in the world.

For every business opportunity the new technology has brought, we’ve also heard well-publicised stories in the media of tailor-made pieces of equipment, such as bespoke prosthetics for people with disabilities, like the seven-year-old Leicestershire boy who had a 3D-printed hand created for him. So how do those who define themselves as disabled access the technology, and what benefits will it bring?

Making community

A new partnership between University of Salford academics, Disability Rights UK and the University of Dundee recently launched a series of events aimed at helping disabled people access the world of digital fabrication and new technology, looking at its potential to provide positive change in their lives.

The ‘In the making’ project is running a number of workshops, with input and expertise from international 3D fabrication experts FabLabs Manchester, where attendees will get a taste of the latest digital technology, hear from business experts at digital business taster sessions, and gain top tips from industry leaders in product design, with an emphasis on trying out cutting-edge 3D scanners and printers for themselves.

With a community that already has a strong ethos of accessibility, the project’s leaders see the network of UK FabLabs as the ideal starting point for providing community ‘makerspaces’ for disabled people as the project expands.

The first ‘In the making’ event was hosted by the BBC in July, from where it went on the road around Salford, heading to Eccles, Swinton, Walkden and Irlam. Speaking about the workshops, ‘In the making’ project leader Dr Ursula Hurley, a senior lecturer at the University of Salford, said: “The digital technology boom has opened the door to a new generation of entrepreneurs and we don’t see why disabled people should not be at the forefront of this.”

Bespoke solutions

The events so far have seen a very enthusiastic response with full or over-subscribed taster sessions. With the assistance of volunteer design students on hand, attendees create a 3D model of their desired object using SketchUp, a CAD package. Once the file has been created, it’s then sent to a 3D printer where the object is turned into thousands of tiny slices. It’s then made, layer by layer, from the bottom-up, sticking together to form the solid object.

So far, attendees have made their own key-rings and dog-tags, as well as creating rulers and bracelets with text on them, expressing things about their lives. It is hoped that the events will plant the seeds of creativity and engagement from which bigger ideas and projects can grow.

One of these larger projects is Lynda Hesketh’s bid to create a prototype finger brace. Spurred on by the lack of an appropriate splint available on the NHS to support her finger, which twists significantly at the knuckle, and limited because her hands are too small for off-the-shelf braces, Lynda set about developing her own design at the Salford workshop. Having attended the BBC launch event and been inspired by what she had learnt there, Lynda had already decided what she wanted to create and went to the workshop armed with plenty of research and information on off-the-shelf finger splints.

“Ideas went off in my head and I realised that things are achievable. People will often say ‘no’ to what you want or need, but it opened my eyes to what can be created,” Lynda says.

With the support of volunteer and retail design consultant Joe Macleod-Iredale whose master’s thesis on design management is looking at ways to deliver entry level CAD training to people with a range of disabilities, Lynda looked to modify current designs to her own specific measurements. These were then modelled in Sketchup before being printed out on the Ultimaker 3D printer. The prototype splint they produced is a small circle of plastic that fits over the finger and supports the joint.

The idea that people can design and make a bespoke piece of equipment to suit their own specific needs is not new. However, the long-term aims of this project seek to bring about a paradigm shift in attitudes and perceptions, particularly in bringing disabled people to the forefront of the ‘making’ community.

Hacking good idea

Another such ‘making’ community is Enabled by Design, a social business run on a not-for-profit basis that represents a diverse community of people with an active interest in accessibility and design that supports independent living. Inspired by co-founder Denise Stephens’ experiences following her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, the work at Enabled by Design focuses on providing its community with a space to share and talk about the products already available on the market, and how these can be improved.

It’s also interested in exploring how people can ‘hack’ or modify things to make them more accessible and easier to use. Significantly, it works to develop relationships with designers, so that its community can help inform the designs of the future with the aim of mainstreaming accessibility, and with hacking experts such as Instructables. One such project is the Eyedrivomatic, an open-source system invented by motor neuron disease sufferer Patrick Joyce that drives power chairs by eye movement alone.

The Eyedrivomatic system is intended for electric wheelchair users who have a wheelchair mounted pc and takes advantage of existing eye-tracking technology, providing a low-cost, open source way to share the information and technology to those that will benefit from it. Members of the community can log in and link to the list of components, 3D design files for the printed parts needed and software, and follow the step-by-step instructions to build the hardware needed for the Eyedrivomatic system for themselves.

Disruptive proposition

While 3D printing is now well established in the public consciousness, it is just one enabling technology within a much larger movement. Maker culture encompasses a world-wide movement of individuals using a mix of digital fabrication, open hardware, software hacking and traditional crafts in order to innovate, sustained with an ethos of openness and inclusivity.

Disability Rights UK’s Philip Connelly, takes up the theme, saying: “At the heart of this project lies a disruptive proposition. If, in 1985, young unemployed disabled people had been trained in the use of personal computers then probably by 1990 they would be the ones in jobs helping companies to digitalise their services. Fast forward to 2015. Imagine if young unemployed disabled people had first access to the technology that will drive development and manufacturing in 2020. They could be not just the ones in jobs, but also driving the economy.”

According to the UK Manufacturing Institute, most large UK manufacturing businesses have segregated skill sets, with market research, design, prototyping and production located within different individual employees. Now that manufacturing is concerned with mental rather than physical ability this career path is open to many disabled people if they are aware of it and choose to take it.

A big part of the project is its anticipated impact on people’s lives after the events and workshops have finished. If its aims are realised, disabled users will have accessed training and facilities in 3D fabrication and gained knowledge of a rapidly expanding technology, putting them on a possible path to employment. Importantly, this has the potential to bring about a significant shift in perception in which disabled people are recast as entrepreneurs, innovators and leading participants in the knowledge economy.

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