Digital start-ups and the disability sector

Posted on 05 March 2018
Digital  start-ups and the disability sector

Challenges invite the most incredible solutions – the bigger the hurdle, the greater the scope for invention. For heart-warming proof, take a peek at the wonders that are sprouting where digital start-ups and the disability sector meet.

Digital start-up AbilityMate, which uses 3D printing to build orthotics for children with cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and other disabilities at a fraction of the cost of traditional methods, was driven by the personal experience of its creators.

Johan du Plessis has a background in start-ups and technology, and had a grandfather whose life was severely impacted by polio. He was searching for something more meaningful in his working world when he met Mel Fuller, who was running the Makerspace community where people shared equipment and knowledge.

"We got together and invited a young woman with cerebral palsy over to Makerspace. She had a problem – because of the spasticity in her hand she couldn't use the joystick controller on her wheelchair, couldn't drive straight, which was dangerous. She couldn't access the community, couldn't work. The ripple effect of that one piece of equipment was huge."

Her occupational therapist had found a replacement joystick in a catalogue – that would take nine months to construct and cost $1200. Mel and Johan moulded some plasticine to the shape of her unaffected middle finger, created a 3D model, then 3D printed an indented toggle that allowed her to drive her wheelchair again. The process took two hours, and cost 36 cents.

AbilityMate is about to move from research and development mode into commercial mode, producing mainly ankle and foot orthotics in a revolutionary way to meet a demand that's been estimated at around 100 million people globally, of which the needs of barely 10 percent are currently met. "These kids wear them for a lot of reasons – to reduce pain, to change deformity, to help them walk," Mel says. "They're pretty important pieces of equipment at a critical age."

Mel joined the team at AbilityMate and she hails the collegiate feel among "a bunch of start-ups who are all really good mates", and the fact that they are mission driven – "for purpose" rather than "for profit".

Online business Enabler Interactive recognised the need for not only more disability support workers across the board, but people who are better trained, and respond not so much to what they decide is best, but the individual's express needs. The path they've taken to achieve this end is radical, to say the least.

"We use mobile gaming technology to train the disability support workforce," says co-founder Huy Nguyen. "We use what gaming has pioneered over eons, in terms of engagement, of depth of interactivity. We have 3D simulation that allows anybody in the community  to learn how to support a person with a disability and gain those practical skills to deliver the services required."

Taking support work training away from traditional education scenarios is a leap, and Huy admits an initial challenge was having the concept taken seriously, ensuring it didn't feel "like a game".

Using Sims-style avatars which the trainee controls, and navigates through a virtual environment of countless scenarios encountered by disability support workers, has proved both engaging and effective.

"Let's say you're supporting a character who uses a wheelchair, and you need to get them out of bed using a hoist," Huy says. "Your avatar will interact with the character, interact with the equipment – the hoist – check that everything is safe, talk to the character and make sure they're ready.

"You know that every choice you make, every action, has an impact, good or bad, on the result or experience of the character you're supporting. It's a sophisticated choose-your-own-adventure concept."

Anyone with a smartphone capable of downloading an app can use the Enabler platform. With backing via the National Disability Services innovation fund, a concept that began in December 2016 is set to roll out in mid-March to around 2000 workers.

One of the many organisations Enabler will service is HireUp, another start-up that's been likened to the Airbnb of support workers, where people with disability and support workers each create a profile, and are matched according to need, skills and interests.

"It's similar to a traditional service model in that it's connecting people requiring support with support workers, but taking out the agency middle man," says HireUp's Harriet Dwyer. "Enabling people to work with each other directly facilitates choice and control and flexibility, a more empowering self-management service."

The story behind HireUp centres on CEO Jordan O'Reilly's late brother, who had severe cerebral palsy. Coming home from university, Jordan would notice a marked difference in his brother's mood and wellbeing depending on whether the support worker who'd visited that day shared his interests, particularly a love of cars and computers. "Jordan would come home and his brother would be despondent, compared to days he spent with a support worker he really loved."

The relationship between start-ups like AbilityMate, Makerspace, Enabler and HireUp and the disability community may be in the honeymoon phase, but a long union seems assured. They all seem to have one thing in common – a shared love of making a difference. As Mel says, "we like going to work every day".