UofTMed Alum: Changing Lives with Assistive Technology

Nov 19, 2019
Author: 
Dr. Rosalie Wang
Dr. Rosalie Wang
I’ll never forget working with a client who had Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia in 1999. He was a resident at a long-term care home and used a powered wheelchair to get around the residence.

Because of his poor motor function and delayed response time he had trouble using his wheelchair and would bump into staff members. It was clear, in no time he would be bumping into other residents, potentially causing them to have a terrible fall. We tried many strategies with him to minimize the risks but ultimately, we had to take his wheelchair away.

My client was devastated. The wheelchair was the only way he could get around on his own. And as an occupational therapist, it is my job to help clients perform everyday activities independently and comfortably.

I was faced with scenarios like this often. I constantly found myself trying to balance a client’s need for and right to independence, and someone else’s need for safety.

In this situation, the wheelchair was no longer an option. But, I knew there had to be other solutions. So, I went back to university to research and develop new technologies that can empower seniors and people with disabilities.

I enrolled in U of T’s Rehabilitation Sciences Institute, in a collaborative program with the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering. I worked in Professor Geoff Fernie’s lab, where we produced and evaluated adaptations to powered wheelchairs.

Our team created sensors to detect obstacles and prevent collisions and developed new steering interfaces to help people with cognitive impairments navigate their environments more easily.

In my postdoctoral research with Professor Alex Mihailidis, we worked on innovations in robotics and artificial intelligence. For example, we tested a robot intended to help remind seniors with Alzheimer’s disease of the steps needed to complete tasks like making a cup of tea or washing their hands. It was an exciting time to be part of rehabilitation sciences.

At the same time, I was aware that even with all of these opportunities in the pipeline, not all of my clients would be able to access them. Robots, artificial intelligence and smart home technology are expensive and public health care funding does not cover the costs.

My fear was rather than helping seniors and people with disabilities by creating technological advancements, I was just deepening the divide between those who can and cannot access health and social care supports.

So, when the opportunity came up to investigate the ethical issues around equity of access to assistive technology, I jumped at it.

I am currently co-leading a national research initiative with Professor Mike Wilson at the McMaster Health Forum funded by AGE-WELL NCE and partnered with March of Dimes Canada. We are working to improve equitable access to assistive technology in Canada by working with seniors, people with disabilities, caregivers, policymakers and health care providers to understand the unique challenges they face.

Now, we are conducting a national survey and holding a symposium to understand Canada’s priorities around this issue. We hope the findings from these initiatives will help us redefine our approach to programs and services for assistive technology in health and social care — making it more accessible to those who need it, regardless of financial circumstances.

With the ageing population in Canada increasing and a larger number of people living with chronic conditions and disability, technology has a big role to play to improve quality of life. Equitable access to assistive technology is a critical piece to people gaining control over their lives and protecting their rights to express themselves and be heard and included in society.

Dr. Rosalie Wang, PhD ’11, is an occupational therapist and Assistant Professor at U of T’s Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy. As an AGE-WELL investigator, she also leads a national project on enhancing equitable access to assistive technology. Join the conversation by writing us your thoughts on power in medicine, or by attending our UofTMed Inside the Issue panel discussion on December 4th.

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