Empowered by technology, young people set out to create greater inclusion.
By Jesse Mintz
Photography by Caitlin McManus
The Jetsons promised us flying cars. Star Trek made teleportation seem a graspable dream. And people are still waiting eagerly for Back to the Future’s hoverboards to make their way to sporting goods stores.
While many technologies remain elusive, today’s generation of tech savvy change-makers are dreaming up a new era of accessibility with inclusion at its core.
A 3D printed robotic arm that costs far less than traditional prosthetics? Check. A crowd-sourced app mapping out the most accessible spots in your community? Sounds great. A robotic seeing-eye “dog” for people who are blind or have low vision at a fraction of the price? We need that. And a community united through technology that enables people with deafness or hearing loss to enjoy music? Sign us up.
The future will be defined by innovation—through transformational technology, we can close the accessibility gap. And thanks to these people, the future is now.
Easton LaChappelle: A revolution in prosthetics.
From a town of 12,000 people in Colorado, Easton LaChappelle is at the forefront of a revolution that will impact millions around the world. Inspired by a seven-year-old girl whose prosthetic limb cost $80,000, Easton dreams of making artificial limbs more accessible. He started at 14, making his first robotic hand with LEGOs, using fishing line as tendons, along with repurposing little motors from toy airplanes.
“I was bored a lot,” he admits. “That pushed me to start learning on my own. The internet was my go-to, as I was building in my bedroom in a small town.”
He’s learned engineering and anatomy to get the motion of fingers and wrists; electronics and software to develop the robotics; neuroscience to merge the user and prosthetic as if it were a real limb controlled by the mind; and design to make it all functional.
If it sounds like a lot for a 21-year-old, that’s because it is.
Now he’s making 3D-printed brain-powered robotic arms at a fraction of the cost, allowing this life-changing technology to reach those who need it most.
“Curiosity is the driving force behind everything I do,” says Easton. “It made me take a part things to learn how they worked; it made me ask questions; it allowed me to push on when I failed. It gave me the drive and motivation to do something and help people.”
Maayan Ziv: Crowdsourcing for all.
Every time Maayan Ziv goes out, she has to plan five steps ahead. Will there be stairs or an accessible washroom? Will there be space to move? Will ramps or elevators be available?
That’s the checklist people with muscular dystrophy, and millions of others with mobility and accessibility issues, go through every day.
“That’s been my situation countless times, and I remember thinking, ‘there has to be a better way to navigate these barriers,’” Maayan recalls. “So I thought, if I can solve my own problem, I can make an impact for others.”
AccessNow is her answer. A tool that aggregates crowdsourced information on an easy to use map, the app puts accessibility in the palm of the user’s hand, empowering them to move through the world seamlessly.
When AccessNow launched in Toronto—Maayan’s hometown—it immediately got responses from across the United States, Europe and Australia. “People recognized the need,” she says proudly, “and we’re gathering information, building a community to help millions. Technology is our enabler.”
Maayan wants people to be able to explore their cities, to feel at home in spaces previously inaccessible to them. And with this change, she hopes, will come a network of people committed to creating access for all. “This is bigger than just my own problem,” she says. “There are other people out there experiencing similar problems, and being part of a collective, recognizing that we can come together to break down barriers… it gives me shivers.”
Maia Dua: Robo dog to the rescue.
Maia Dua needed a science fair project.
The 16-year-old had entered a competition for young women using science and technology to create positive change. So, in search of an idea, she looked around and drew inspiration from her own life.
It started with a puppy.
Her family was taking care of a dog who was proving really difficult to train, and it got Maia thinking about accessibility and guide dogs. “If someone has a disability, how much more difficult would this have been?” she reflects.
Then came the research. It costs around $50,000 to train and pair a guide dog with the right person, and they can only work for around 7 years. Maybe technology can offer a better solution, she thought.
So, she decided to build a seeing-eye robot alternative.
It only took her four (sleepless) days to complete the prototype. By the end of her tireless experimenting, she had created a $600 robot with ultrasonic sensors, which relies on echolocation to alert people who are blind or have low vision of their surroundings.
“You can create anything,” Maia says confidently when talking about the “how” behind her invention. “Technology is always advancing. If you can think of an idea, you have the power to create it.”
Skye Vanderlinden: All signs point to change.
Sign language just came naturally to Skye Vanderlinden; she can’t really explain it. She calls it a gift—one she’s putting to good use.
First, she made friends with Max Bryant, a young boy in her community who is deaf.
There aren’t many people who know how to sign in Coronado, a small town in California, so it gave Max and Skye an outlet and an important social connection.
One day while signing with Max, she hit on something powerful—something that would break down barriers. She could translate the sonic experience of music for him.
Not long after, she was sharing her sign language music videos on the popular app musical.ly, signing along to make the experience more accessible, while sharing American Sign Language with a new audience.
Empowered by technology to reach far beyond her town, Skye now has tens of thousands of loyal followers from across the country and around the world. She’s using technology to build community and widen the meaning of inclusion.
And she isn’t stopping anytime soon. With plans to be either a music interpreter or teach at a school for people who are deaf, Skye is certain to keep on changing the lives of others for the better. “I just want to spread awareness,” she says with her typical cheer. “I want to show people that deaf isn’t a disability. It’s just something that makes you different.”
Watch the full story.