Regaining the Sense of Touch

A lot of my accessibility posts have focused on regaining function—the ability to perform a task using a prosthetic devices. Recently, there has been some development of touch. In fact, I reported on it most recently in my Continuing Development of Accessibility Aids post. Until now, the ability to feel has been limited to motor perception—how the prosthetic is moving through space and when it touches some other object. A new development makes it possible for the prosthetic to do more. The sense of touch can now include discovering the size and shape of items, as well as whether the item is hard, medium, or soft in consistency. The combination of motor, shape, and hardness touch makes it possible for someone to perform a considerably wider range of tasks using the prosthetic.

There are still quite a number of things missing from the picture. For example, a prosthetic can’t feel heat or cold just yet. It also can’t feel texture, except in the most unrefined manner. There is also no sensation of pain. So there is still a long way to go before the prosthetic could completely replace the biological equivalent, but the technology is getting closer.

The reason that this change is so important to readers of Accessibility for Everybody: Understanding the Section 508 Accessibility Requirements is that this prosthetic has the potential to make computers truly usable for those with special mobility needs. With a refined sense of touch, someone with a prosthetic could potentially use a standard computer that doesn’t require any specialized hardware or software. In fact, it means that someone equipped with this kind of prosthetic device could use the entire range of input devices, including touch screens. In short, the playing field would finally be completely level for this group of people. I find the idea really exciting because it has been so long in coming.

Of course, the impact of such a change extends far beyond computer and other technology use. Imagine how it would feel to be able to pick up a grape or an egg for the first time after not being able to do so for an extended time-frame. It boggles the mind. We’re not quite to the same stage of development as presented in movies like Star Wars, but we’re getting there and at a relatively fast pace.

A bigger question is whether a prosthetic, no matter how functional, could ever really replace the biological counterpart. The answer to that question would have to be a resounding no. Even if the prosthetic functions exactly like a real human hand, or even extends what a human can do to some degree, it’s still not quite the same emotionally as having the real body part. Geordi LaForge (Star Trek) expressed the concept best when he kept seeking a counterpart to the visor he wore. Yes, the visor gave him eyesight. In fact, the visor presented him with eyesight that exceeded human capacity, but it still wasn’t the real thing.

What are your thoughts on the current trends in prosthetic development? Do you feel prosthetic devices will ever truly duplicate human functionality? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.