A Toronto commute that should have taken Pooja Viswanathan about 45 minutes wound up lasting three hours. That’s because she was using a wheelchair on the transit system, where she encountered inaccessible stations, out-of-service elevators, and difficulties boarding buses.
Viswanathan does not need to use a wheelchair, but as the founder of Toronto-based Braze Mobility – which creates blind spot sensors for wheelchairs and mobility aids – she undertook the trip to experience the challenges faced by people who do. She was shocked to realize how much planning people with disabilities need to do for simple excursions.
“Why do they have to travel for two or three times the amount of time than anybody else?” she asks.
Since her student days, Viswanathan has made it her mission to help people with disabilities access the world. She transitioned from a University of Toronto lab to a team collaborating on the same smart wheelchair project at UBC (which she says has “one of the best robotics labs in the world”).
What was initially a “fun robotics project” became her PhD project after an eye-opening visit to a long-term care facility in 2001. She describes seeing residents slumped over in manual wheelchairs that they didn't have the strength to self-propel. They were being denied power mobility devices, she explains, because of safety concerns. She regarded it as “a violation of a fundamental human right to mobility.” Yet she also recognized that staff had to choose between supporting their clients’ autonomy and protecting them. It was a dilemma that needed a solution.
The semi-autonomous wheelchair technology she had been working on was designed to take over control to prevent accidents. But unlike vehicles that people get in and out of, a wheelchair is more like an extension of the body, Viswanathan points out. Accordingly, she switched to designing an alert-based system that left decision-making to the person using the wheelchair. A challenge that developers often face, she explains, is acknowledging that a technology they’ve been building for years is perhaps not the right solution. Her recommendation? “Detach yourself from the solution and attach yourself to the problem.”
Successful problem-solving involves the feedback of end users. A year-long beta testing of the alert-based system invited the participation of people with disabilities, who tested it in both winter and summer conditions. As a result, Viswanathan’s devices now offer adjustable lights for colourblind users, audio alerts, and vibration alerts that are helpful for vision- or hearing-impaired people. The alerts help counter the difficulty some wheelchair users experience with seeing the entirety of their immediate surroundings, particularly those who need headrests or have limited upper body mobility.
Viswanathan’s devices have helped users execute moves they used to struggle with, such as backing out of an elevator or manoeuvering in tight spaces. They save time and help prevent injuries or damage. But perhaps their ultimate contribution is the removal of barriers to equality.