Breaking down barriers
Four years of research to help people
with disabilities live fully
By Caroline Arbour
For people with a disability, everyday tasks can pose enormous challenges. While they must deal with physical limitations, they also face physical and social barriers. What if we could identify these obstacles, work to remove them, thereby building more inclusive communities and by extension, a more inclusive society?
It is with this objective in mind that researchers from the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Rehabilitation of Greater Montreal (CRIR) developed a unique project under the direction of Drs Bonnie Swaine and Eva Kehayia. Known as RehabMALL, it consisted of transforming a shopping centre into a living laboratory for ideas and new technologies to initiate change – the first testing ground of its kind in North America.
The project needed a home, so the CRIR approached Alexis Nihon, which was in the planning stages of a significant makeover, and talks led to the mall opening its doors to the researchers so that their work might inform the renovations. Dozens of teams began studying the various aspects of the shopping experience for people with disabilities to ultimately facilitate what can be a very demanding, yet essential activity for them. Overall, more than 60 different projects were undertaken in collaboration with clinicians, policy makers, community organizations, and members of the public.
Overall, more than 60 different projects were undertaken in collaboration with clinicians, policy makers, community organizations, and members of the public.
Pinpointing the issues
In order to develop tools that can make life easier for people with physical disabilities and to ensure that changes made to a specific environment are appropriate, it is important to understand their specific needs. Many projects therefore aimed to gather information about what they – as well as clinicians and shopkeepers – considered to be physical and social obstacles. Some researchers focused on the perspective of adults, while others looked at that of teenagers or their parents.
They concluded that for an environment to be truly inclusive, communication barriers need to be eliminated, and this can be done by raising the awareness of shopkeepers and the community at large on disability issues. A few ongoing projects involve training staff at Alexis Nihon with the objective of easing interactions.
Researchers concluded that, for an environment to be truly inclusive, communication barriers need to be eliminated, and this can be done by raising the awareness of shopkeepers and the community at large on disability issues.
Improving wellbeing with technology
Approximately 65 million people worldwide rely on a wheelchair daily to get around, inside and outside their home. Powered wheelchairs certainly may seem more practical, but not for people who also have visual, motor or cognitive deficits. So a team of researchers, technicians and clinicians set out to design an intelligent wheelchair prototype that is able to set and follow a planned route, avoid static and moving obstacles along the way. It can be controlled by speech recognition, a joystick, or tactile display. By reacting to changing environments, this wheelchair can offer an unmatched level of independence.
Other research teams have been developing new devices to be used by people with sensory impairments, such as blindness or deafness, so that they are able navigate safely on their own and communicate with the world. Given that our senses are responsible for constantly feeding us data about our surroundings, it can be difficult for the blind and the deaf to orient themselves, especially in unfamiliar environments. And asking for help does not necessarily simplify matters, since directions can be perceived and remembered very differently.
And how can technology available at our fingertips serve people with disabilities? A team of researchers considered this question, testing different mobile applications designed to provide information on a site’s accessibility.
Improving rehabilitation practice
One of the most innovative projects of the RehabMALL was conceived to help rehabilitation professionals better prepare patients who have suffered a stroke or a traumatic brain injury adapt to cognitive deficits and resume their daily activities. Teams of CRIR and Israeli researchers mapped a section of the shopping centre and re-created a virtual model for patients to relearn how to navigate in complex environments. In these controlled conditions, clinicians and researchers were able to gauge their success at carrying out “real-world” tasks.
These are only a few examples of what has been going on in the living laboratory that is Alexis Nihon. Now, after four years of cutting edge interdisciplinary research, the CRIR is ready to unveil and share the results of its efforts. On November 3, from 2:30 pm to 5:30 pm, the public is invited to meet with researchers at booths on all three levels of the shopping centre, discover and experience new technology, and find out more about the future of rehabilitation science.