We talked about what autonomous wheelchairs are, and some of the barriers that will need to be overcome before fully autonomous wheelchairs enter the marketplace in our last blog post. We will now examine some of the ethical limitations of autonomous wheelchairs, as well as the benefits that they will bring to people who use wheelchairs and their caregivers. Have thoughts about autonomous wheelchairs? I’d love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Last summer, I went to visit the camp for kids and young adults with physical disabilities that I used to work at. While there, I was heading back with a group to their cabin after a campfire- it was very dark, and the path was unlit. One of the campers that I have known for many years asked if I could navigate his chair through the darkness until we got to an area that was better lit up. We got chatting, and he told me that he very rarely asks others for help with navigating his wheelchair- unless he feels that there could be danger to himself or others he will maintain control. He said that having grown up all of his life with CP, his power wheelchair is one of the few things that he has total physical control over, and giving up control is almost unthinkable. This made me stop and think about the future of power mobility, and how it will affect the relationship between a person and their wheelchair.
There are many potential benefits to autonomous power mobility. Power wheelchair accidents are common (as per our wheelchair collision blog post series!) and can be deadly, especially among the older population. In Canada, falls among elderly people resulted in over 7,000 deaths between 2000-2002 (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2005). In institutions with many elderly people, having an power wheelchair can be seen as a danger to the other residents, and some facilities ban the use of power mobility altogether. Autonomous wheelchairs have the opportunity to prevent accidents, by sensing their environment completely and predicting the safest path, removing or reducing the probability of driver error causing an accident.
Autonomous wheelchairs also have the ability to provide access to independent mobility for people who otherwise need to rely on attendant care to mobilize. Having the ability to move throughout the environment is important for mental health and well-being. For people who do not have access to 24-hour one-on-one care, relying on attendants for mobility could be frustrating. Autonomous wheelchairs would provide independence for the person using the chair, and would reduce the burden on caregivers. Take for example meal times. Often, with limited numbers of staff, getting all residents into place at tables can take up to an hour. With the use of autonomous chairs, that process could be streamlined and staff would be able to focus on getting everyone their food!
Despite these potential positives, the most important factor to consider is the impact for the people who would use the autonomous wheelchairs, including feelings of autonomy and independence. Autonomous chairs must be designed in such a way that people are able to feel that they fully control the chair, and not that the chair is moving them of its own volition. This presents and interesting design challenge for technology developers (spoiler alert- our next blog series will look at accessible & inclusive design!)
An alternative to fully autonomous chairs is giving the driver the information that they need to safely operate their power wheelchair, while maintaining their full control over the chair. This can be done through the use of visual aids, including blind spot sensors to alert drivers to obstacles in their environment- check out the Braze Sentina for more information!
Public Health Agency of Canada. Report on seniors’ falls in Canada. 2005. http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/seniors-aines/alt-formats/pdf/publications/pro/injury-blessure/seniors_falls/seniors-falls_e.pdf.