Saturday, February 1, 2014

Thoughts on the Ekso Bionics Exoskeleton

In the January edition of "People", there's an article called "Helping Paralyzed People Walk Again". It talks about an army vet who recently acquired the device for himself. The Ekso Exoskeleton is described as "a full-body robotic suit". If you haven't seen the picture, here is what it looks like for a better understanding:
Obviously it's very technical looking, and it kind of looks like something from the future. But I'm not sure that Gary (the vet who acquired this suit in the article) is using it for the right reasons. When he stood up in the Ekso for the first time, he's quoted as saying "this was how it was meant to be". And even though, biologically, humans/apes have learned to walk up-right (thanks to evolution), I can't help but think that his comment is a back-handed compliment to those who don't walk up-right. I can't say for sure, since I'm not a wheel chair user, but the way Gary put it it's like walking up-right is the "norm". Which kind of pushes everyone else who has a disability to the side line or "abnormal". Also, his wife was quoted as saying "he's so handsome!" when Gary first stood. Was he not handsome before? Was he less attractive sitting in a wheelchair than standing in a robotic suit? It just doesn't sound very kosher to me.

Gary is quoted elsewhere in the article as saying "Maybe one day I'll put on a device and people won't even realize I'm a paraplegic". Well, no offense Gary, but you shouldn't have to hide or disguise the fact that you're paralyzed from the waste down. You were a soldier in Iraq that survived an extremely traumatic event. Your paralysis shouldn't be shameful to you. You should embrace the fact that you are a survivor, and disability is NOTHING to hide or be ashamed of. I can just picture Gary twenty years from now, with an Ekso suit that fits under his clothing and isn't visible. He might look "normal" for standing up-right, but he's also masking the underlying issue. Maybe instead of making robotic machines to help people walk, Scientists could find a way to fix the broken nerves or the other underlying causes of paralysis. But in the meantime, nobody should have to hide who they are. Just because you can't walk doesn't make you any less human. It doesn't make you less attractive.

The rest of the article just reminds me of the Disability Studies course that I took my senior year of college. People are always trying to talk about "overcoming disability". That's exactly what this article is like when you read it. It rambles for a couple of paragraphs about how unhappy Gary was, and how his family had to take care of him and help him out. But then it goes on to talk about how Gary was able to stand taller than his wife, and take a stroll. He "overcame" his paralysis using this awesome robotic contraption. There's also a little blurb in the corner of the article that explains how the machine apparently works. I guess there's a remote control to help the suit take steps, but at the moment Gary's family is controlling the remote for him. How is that any different from when they complained about taking care of him before? You just went from helping him reach stuff, to helping him take steps. But I guess that's somehow "better" because he is standing up-right.

Really, the only good thing I found about the article was the part where the Doctor said that standing up-right helps with "bones, digestion, and bowel issues". I can understand that. So for medical reasons I can understand why someone would want a $100,000+ robotic Ekso suit. If Gary had really bad stomach problems than of course it would be medically appropriate for him to have the suit. But it just seems to me that Gary and his family are more concerned with him looking "normal" than actually being healthy. The suit is also a great way to exercise the legs outside of physical therapy, but there's barely any mention of that. Instead, the article focuses more upon Gary's pride and physical appearance.
 Eventually the goal of Ekso is for it to be available commercially. So anyone who wants to walk on their own will be able to if they can afford the robotic suit. I think that's awesome that people will be able to get up and out of their wheelchairs, but I just hope that they're doing it for the right reasons. And eventually maybe the suit will be controlled by the person using it and not by their aide or family members. I checked out the Ekso Bionics website and it seems pretty legit. They medically want to help people. There's even some videos talking about the benefits of the suit. I guess they're geared towards people who were once able to walk, can no longer walk, but want to walk again. So they hope to skip the whole wheel chair process after paralysis and get people right back into walking again. But what about people who were born unable to walk? They don't have muscle memory of walking. Shouldn't they be allowed to try the suit too? I just don't want the suit to be geared to a certain, specific group of people. Nor should it be promoted as the "norm" or anything like that. It should be solely for medical reasons, and if it makes people happier than that should just be considered a bonus. Also, if it does become commercially successful and available to the public hopefully Insurance Companies will help pay for it because they are super expensive.
This last picture shows the suit being used. I know that the people wearing it have said that they feel more independent then when they have to use a wheel chair, but in reality there is still someone standing behind you to control your steps. And looking at the picture it looks like the lady is being walked like a dog on a leash. That doesn't seem very independent to me, but hopefully they'll keep upgrading it so there won't be need of someone else using the remote control.

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