Enable Makeathon: Inspiring innovative solutions to help people with disabilities

Written by Mary Werntz, head of regional delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross in New Delhi

Of the world's seven billion people, one billion are living with disabilities. Physical disabilities often limit a person's mobility and dexterity. But beyond these challenges for the individual, physical disabilities impact family members, society and the overall healthcare system. Meeting the complex needs of persons with physical disabilities is a societal responsibility- one that we can all contribute to.

Initiated by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and its partners, the 'Enable Makeathon' is a global project aimed at creating new assistive devices for persons with disabilities living in rural settings- both in India and across the world. For us, India was a natural choice. With its abundance of talent and resourcefulness in generating low cost, high quality "innovations" for end-users we were confident that interesting ideas would emerge. Even more motivating has been the enthusiasm we have encountered from individuals and organisations that have joined us in this journey including, the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities that is partnering with the ICRC. The project is motivated by a spirit of broad collaboration with persons with disabilities, the government, the private sector and academia. Through a 60-day process, participants, including persons with disabilities, engineers, technology and design experts, the scientific and innovation community and mentors, have developed solutions and products in response to specific needs identified from rural settings.

During the Makeathon "challenges" will be presented—these are situational struggles that confront a person with disability - which participants to whom they are presented will seek to solve. These 'challenges' focus on everyday activities, such as movement in and around the home, self-care and personal hygiene, operating different means of communication, and ease of traveling. The project also explores how existing technologies can be adapted and re-designed to match the needs of users possessing limited financial resources and living rural areas. All challenges are aimed at supporting persons with physical disabilities who cannot achieve full participation in their communities and society. Interestingly, 84 out of the 138 entry solutions received for the Makeathon were from India itself.

One submission is a low cost, pre-fabricated device for children with physical disabilities. With an easily-adjustable frame, this device can be used for children between two and four years of age to sit as well as stand. Another group has been working on a revamp of a conventional knee ankle foot orthosis (KAFO) aimed at also being highly cost-effective. Its ease of locking and unlocking the knee joint enables users to travel comfortably in public or private transport. There is also the MAK or My Ability Kit - a set of assistive devices that can be carried packed in a small box - that help perform activities of daily living independently whether it is eating or brushing your teeth, shaving or combing, writing or typing. Yet another team has conceived a device that uses sensors to assess the users' comfort level which in turn enables prosthetists, physiotherapists and rehabilitation centres to improve the functionality of the prosthetic device.

What is particularly interesting about the Enable Makeathon is how the programme is designed to work 'with' persons with disabilities and not just 'for' them. Persons with disabilities are involved at every stage of the process, whether as challenge-setters, designers, users and even judges. This resonates with what the government of India has also been stating through its diverse campaigns for better access in public places for persons with disabilities, such as the Accessible India Campaign. At the ICRC, we look at an approach which is both person-centred and environment-centred; we seek appropriate technology to reduce the functional limitations of disability, while simultaneously looking towards creating an environment that is better designed towards mainstreaming persons with disability. Without this, no amount of technology and good intentions will work.

For us, the Enable Makeathon borrows from the "Make in India" slogan to say: Innovate in India. Innovation remains at the heart of new India, where a young and determined nation is taking steady steps to transforming its peoples' lives. I believe technology is absolutely key in this transformation, as it opens countless avenues to newer opportunities and discoveries, improves individual autonomy of persons with disability, and improves their quality of life. The Enable Makeathon is an ambitious initiative through which the ICRC seeks to contribute in new ways to building a more inclusive world.