Stanford Course Explores Technologies for Older Adults, People with Disabilities
“Technology” means different things to different people.
For many, the word is synonymous with gadgets: phones that shoot HD video and play games, robot vacuums, smart thermometers, drone deliverymen. For those with medical disabilities; however, technology often provides more than just convenience and entertainment, it can provide the means to a better life.
“Technology that benefits people with disabilities or older adults is called assistive technology,” says David L. Jaffe, a lecturer at Stanford University. “There are many commercially available assistive technology products that have the potential to help people get through their day, provide greater independence, and a better quality of life.”
Jaffe, a rehabilitation engineer, has devoted his life to the development of products and technologies that improve the lives of people with disabilities. Before teaching at Stanford, he worked in the biomedical engineering section of Hines Veterans Affairs Hospital outside of Chicago and also the Rehabilitation Research and Development Center at the VA Health Care System in Palo Alto, Calif.
Today, through his work at Stanford, he’s mentoring young engineers and introducing them to the field of assistive technology. Students enrolled in his course “Perspectives in Assistive Technology” interact with users of assistive technology, then use their engineering skills to develop solutions to those people’s problems. (You can see the results of many of those student projects here.)
Jaffe recently took the time to visit with The Prescription Pad about the work he and his students are doing at Stanford. His insight into the possibilities and limitations of adaptive technology is enlightening. You can read Jaffe’s responses to our questions below:
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The Prescription Pad: Based on what you've seen in your class, what are your thoughts on technology and its ability to improve the lives of people with disabilities or older adults?
Jaffe: There are many products out there that have the potential to improve people’s lives, but not all of them work for every consumer. Many products, including expensive high technology products, may be abandoned due to 1) a mismatch between the unique problems and needs of the particular user and the features of the device, 2) physically outgrowing a device like a wheelchair, 3) the device breaking or wearing out, 4) a change in the user's medical condition, or 5) aesthetic or negative branding stigma issues.
I have followed this field extensively for over 30 years. Every day, I see new prototype devices or research that promises solutions to problems faced by people with disabilities and older adults. But, for the most part, these prototypes and research fail to reach the marketplace because even simple products can require considerable funding over a long development time.
Recent technology advances in prosthetics, brain-controlled devices, and robotic exoskeletons may positively impact the lives of people who use them. But in all cases, the market size is small, which means these products will be expensive. While there are an estimated 70 million citizens with disabilities, this does not mean there is a large market for any one product — rather there are a large number of very small markets.
And, while there have been improvements in traditional product areas like wheelchairs, it is unclear if new products will catch on and displace the current offerings if they offer just an incremental benefit.
The Prescription Pad: Do students in your Assistive Technology course tend to get emotionally involved in their projects?
Jaffe: I have had several students in the course work on projects for a family member with a disability. These students and their teammates seem to have a greater passion for what they are doing compared to student teams working with unrelated community members with a disability. Perhaps, this is because they more fully understand and appreciate the problems they have been asked to address.
The Prescription Pad: Do your students undergo any type of sensitivity training? How do you help them understand the lives, needs, and attitudes of people with disabilities and older adults?
Jaffe: In my assistive technology course, there are many opportunities for students to interact with people with disabilities and older adults.
First, there may be some Stanford students with disabilities who enroll in the course. Second, the Stanford community, many of whom are disabled or are older adults, is invited to attend the lectures. Their inclusion and participation enhances class discussions. Community members often suggest challenges for students to pursue and coach students who address those problems. Third, there are class sessions that involve people with disabilities and older adults including stroke survivors, amputees, veterans with spinal cord or brain injuries, and Stanford students who have disabilities.
Being exposed to these populations in these ways removes any awkwardness. I also mention "political correctness” in language and terminology in the first class session. Students come to understand that people with disabilities are people first and their disabilities are secondary.
The Prescription Pad: In the years you’ve been teaching this course, are there any success stories that stand out?
Jaffe: There have been a few project prototypes and software apps that are now available commercially, but this is neither a goal of the course nor the objective of students' projects.
In the course, success is measured in terms of the professional skills the students acquire through working in teams, working in the community, solving problems, understanding the engineering design development process, practicing fabrication techniques, developing critical thinking skills, employing course knowledge in a practical context, and enhancing presentation and report writing skills. As it often takes years of work and millions of dollars to get a new device on the market, commercialization is not a realistic goal of the 10-week course. While the prototypes that students fabricate are often fully functional, many are just not ready for “prime time" and also might be unsafe to use.
The Prescription Pad: Have any of your students gone on to pursue careers in medical device engineering?
Jaffe: The course is not designed to train students to become rehabilitation engineers. However, some students do come into the course with an interest in medicine, medical technology, or prosthetics. I have designed the course to appeal to students in every academic discipline who would like to see how their Stanford education might be used to benefit people, community, society, and the world.
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To learn more about the work Jaffe and his students are doing, visit Stanford’s “Perspectives in Assistive Technology” website.
Chris Wilson is the chief marketing officer for Finnegan Medical Supply, an online medical supply store. The Prescription Pad is a healthcare blog focused on the lifestyles of those who require medical supplies and devices. The information presented here is designed to help people live with comfort and dignity; it should not be taken as medical advice.