Hands-Free Wheelchairs Get New Technology

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Scientists and students from Atlanta’s Shepherd Center, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, and Northwestern University have published a study that details a new technology they’ve developed that allows paralyzed wheelchair users to control movements using a magnetic tongue stud.

The Tongue Drive System will increase the overall quality of life for users by making their movements smoother and more intuitive. It also helps by removing the very visible equipment of the past (the straw) so others can focus on the person, not the equipment. Research has shown that this new technology is as accurate as and faster than traditional “sip and puff” air-controlled methods of directing a wheelchair: Until now, wheelchair users controlled the movements of their wheelchair with a straw connected to a computer. “Sip and puff” is the most common form of chair-controlling assistive technology. Now, wheelchair-bound patients can use their tongue as a joystick and send signals to a headset, which will complete up to six commands based on movements of the tongue. Testing was done with both able-bodied individuals and those with disabilities, using wheelchairs with both sip-and-puff and Tongue Drive System technologies, and both groups’ results made it clear that Tongue Drive is the way to go.

Science Translational Medicine published the results of the study, co-authored by Jeonghee Kim and Hangue Park (both graduate students at Georgia Tech), in late November. Scientists and physicians are excited about this development, particularly because of its effect on wheelchair users’ quality of life. There is already some stigma involved with wheelchair use, but when headgear and equipment are added to the picture, that only increases the stigma. Fortunately, the Tongue Drive System is unobtrusive, almost invisible, and easy to incorporate into a wheelchair user’s routine.

Additional testing still needs to be completed before the Tongue Drive System is available to the public, but specialists say that the applications for this technology will make it popular with severely disabled patients.

This post was written by a guest contributor for GlobalLiftCorp.com, a leading manufacturer of aquatic access equipment.