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Sophisticated Prosthetics Help Liberate Disabled Adventurers


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

A story now about technology and the creative ways it's being used to help people with disabilities enjoy the great outdoors - skiing, biking, even whitewater rafting, as Colorado Public Radio's Eric Whitney reports.

ERIC WHITNEY, BYLINE: In the equipment room at Telluride Adaptive Sports in Colorado, it's all about what works.

TIM MCGOUGH: So we basically just have a piece of plywood board here with two plastic lawn chairs and have the legs cut off, and so the seats are mounted to this board to go rafting.

WHITNEY: Tim McGough, who runs Telluride Adaptive, says the contraption is simple, but it makes a day in the whitewater possible for people with spinal cord injuries who've lost the ability to sit upright on their own. At the other end of the spectrum, machined aluminum sit-skis he puts people on in the wintertime that start at $3,000 each.

MCGOUGH: This is a pretty high-performance ski here that a lot of the skiers will now use in the Paralympics or in the X-Games or something like that with a big old Penske shock on it.

WHITNEY: The lightweight shock absorbers and suspension systems that have revolutionized mountain biking for the able-bodied are now being put to use in sports equipment for the disabled. And it's often people with disabilities themselves who are modifying existing gear into designs that work for them.


JAKE O'CONNOR: I love this stuff.

WHITNEY: Jake O'Connor, who's paralyzed from the waist down, splashes one of the off-road hand cycles that he builds across a shallow spot in a river during a trail ride. His three-wheeled cycles have hand cranks instead of pedals, disc brakes from a bicycle parts catalogue and low gears so people can ride up steep hills on backcountry trails.

O'CONNOR: I can probably climb steeper hills than you can on your mountain bike. I'm stable. You're going to tip over. I don't have that problem. I can go straight up anything.

WHITNEY: O'Connor builds his bikes in a three-man shop outside a ski resort. Other innovations have more sophisticated origins.

HUGH HERR: My name is Hugh Herr. I'm the director of the biomechatronics group at MIT in Massachusetts.


HERR: Biomechatronics group.


WHITNEY: The biomechatronics group at MIT spent eight years and $30 million developing a bionic ankle joint. It's full of electronic sensors and microcontrollers connected to a small onboard computer. Herr watches carefully when new users are fit with them for the first time.

HERR: Half will start weeping, and the other half start giggling with happiness. So many people when they're fit say I have my body back.

WHITNEY: Herr is a double amputee himself and has been using the bionic ankles personally for a few years now.

HERR: I view it as a new relationship between a human being and technology. It's a different relationship between a human being and, say, a hammer, a normal tool. When a person is fit with a bionic limb and they say I have my body back, that's more of a fundamental relationship. It's embodiment. It's not tool use.


WHITNEY: Embodiment is what makers of this new device are going for too. It's a bionic exoskeleton, basically, a robotic suit that Amanda Boxtel is wearing. It holds her upright and walks for her. Boxtel's legs were paralyzed in a skiing accident 21 years ago.

AMANDA BOXTEL: With this technology, hope is alive.

WHITNEY: People who are paralyzed hope the exoskeletons will not only replace body functions they've lost but help retrain their muscles and neuropathways to regain body function. Boxtel says the device already reduces the chronic pain related to her paralysis and improves her digestion. But her favorite part, she says, is just changing the way she interacts with people that many in wheelchairs refer to as uprights.

BOXTEL: Just to stand tall and feel my five-foot-seven frame to look at someone eye to eye, to have that delicious heart-to-heart hug.

WHITNEY: Robotic exoskeletons are just now walking out of science-fiction movies, but last year, an athlete used one in the London marathon. It took her 17 days to finish, but developers say exoskeletons are today where cellphones were in the early '90s - big, clunky and expensive. In a few years, they expect them to be cheap and widely available. For NPR News, I'm Eric Whitney. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Whitney
[Copyright 2024 NPR]