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.

 

Continuing Development of Accessibility Aids

Technology continues to improve in its support for those with special needs. I try to read as many articles as I can on the subject because I truly believe that computers offer the means to provide a level playing surface for everyone. I’ve posted a number of other times about improvements in technology that will eventually help people lead better lives, even when they have special requirements. As our population continues to age, this technology will also help older people in the population to continue making valuable contributions to society as a whole, so these technologies aren’t just for the few—everyone is affected at some point.

I read with interest a story about new bionic hand. The problem with any prosthetic limb is that it doesn’t provide feedback. Without touch, using a prosthetic is incredibly hard. You must be able to feel what is happening at the end of your arm. This new bionic hand does just that—it provides some level of feedback using the person’s own nervous system. I find this amazing because it would have been science fiction just a few years ago. I had previously written about the ability of someone to simply think about the motion required to perform a task in The Bionic Person, One Step Closer, but this is different. Not only can the person think about what to do, but they can also feel the activity when they do it. Of course, it isn’t anywhere near as useful as a real hand, but technology takes small steps forward.

This new hand isn’t permanent yet, nor are any of the other exciting technologies in the works right now. The biggest problem is that the electrodes used to communicate with the brain cause problems—essentially, the body rejects them. In addition, the prosthetic limbs have a long way to go before they become as usable as natural limbs. For example, a natural hand has 22 degrees of controls, while the best that a prosthetic limb can manage is seven.

Many of the technologies used to help people with visual problems have been temporary as well. However, a new bionic eye may change that. In this case, the eye is designed to help someone with a specific eye disease and they must still wear special glasses to make the modifications work. However, the eye implant is permanent in this case, which means that after surgery a person has a permanent change in their vision that they can count on using.

This truly is an exciting time because it’s slowly becoming possible to give people their lives back when something catastrophic happens. Many of the articles that I’ve read say that it will still take 20 or 30 years before science has developed limbs and other body parts that function as well as the real thing, but every advance made does help at least a little. What are your thoughts on the bionic person? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.