Wheelchairs and other mobility devices are important to people with disabilities. They allow for better participation in activities such as work and leisure. Long-term users often report that their wheelchair is an extension of their body. This research area aims at better understanding the needs of wheelchair users and in developing new training approaches to wheelchair driving skill, through the use of affordable technology.
Understanding the needs
Part of our research looks at the needs of wheelchair users, as well as trying to understand what people do with their wheelchairs.
In collaboration with Patrick Boissy (Université de Sherbrooke) and François Routhier (Université Laval), we have equipped power wheelchairs with a custom-made data logging system, in order to understand how people use their wheelchair during their daily lives. We were able to measure GPS position, speed, joystick use and proximity of obstacles for periods of up to 7 days.
In separate work, we interviewed power wheelchair users, manual wheelchair users and four-wheel scooter users, in order to better understand the challenges encountered when first learning to use these mobility devices. Clinicians who are experts in assistive mobility were also interviewed. This has led to a better understanding of what activities or environments are especially challenging to new users of mobility devices. For example, power wheelchair users find constrained areas, such as an elevator, and crowded areas, such as a shopping mall, to be particularly challenging. Manual wheelchair users, on the other hand, fell that they would need more practice in handling slopes and to propel over long distances.
Our lab also contributed to the MobiliSIG project. MobiliSIG aims at providing an application to wheelchair users allowing them to map an itinerary, while considering the presence of obstacles and the users’ abilities. Our contribution was to map and categorize the obstacles present on the streets and sidewalks of a Montreal downtown area. This mapped area will be used for future evaluations of the MobiliSIG app.
Wheelchair driving skills and confidence in one’s abilities can be greatly improved through training. Unfortunately, there is generally very little time devoted to wheelchair training during rehabilitation, due to lack of staff and resources. Our lab is looking at ways that can improve existing training programs, for example through the use of a virtual reality simulator.
The current version of the miWe wheelchair simulator was developed based on an evaluation of users’ needs. It is low-cost and runs on a standard computer. It can be controlled with a gaming joystick or the keyboard. Various environments have been constructed, including a bathroom, an elevator, a supermarket and a shopping mall. Our research showed that practicing in the simulator does improve real-life wheelchair skills.
While the miWe simulator was first aimed at power wheelchair users, we have recently developed an interface for manual wheelchair users. This consists in a platform with two pairs of rollers. The wheelchair sits on the rollers, similar to a stationary bicycle. Activities that are relevant to manual wheelchair users will be designed. We are also planning an interface to allow the simulation of a four-wheel electrical scooter.