Technological heroes: The teams helping Paralympians and ‘ordinary’ people to take on the world

alexl-v2-285x285Alex Leach, Commercial Manager at Designability, leads all of the commercial and financial aspects of our work which includes negotiating contracts with partner organisations and ensuring our products can reach as many people as possible. Here she explores the debate around assistive devices in sport and the teams behind our incredible athletes.

I don’t consider myself to be much of a sports fan – I have been known to nod off with boredom during even the most exciting England final. l do, however, love the Olympics! And what an Olympics and Paralympics we enjoyed this year with such success for Team GB.

As our athletes from the Olympics and Paralympics parade through the streets of Manchester and London to rapturous applause this week, we are all able to share in the obvious joy on the faces of these apparently ‘ordinary’ people who have achieved extraordinary things. We can appreciate the years of effort, sacrifices, dedication and single-minded commitment that led to them getting to the games, let alone winning a medal.

The support team that stand in the background

I always admire the army of people whose wrap-around support allows our athletes to achieve so much. Trainers, physios, funders and family all work hard for years to actualise this success. Another often forgotten group are the technicians and researchers who have contributed to our sporting success. This is especially important for the Paralympians. Years of effort have gone into making prosthetics, wheelchairs and orthotics to allow participation and performance.

I was amazed to learn that, in Rio, prosthetic manufacturer Ottobock provided free technical and repair services to Paralympic athletes and have done the same at every games since 1988.  This service was manned by over 100 technicians from 31 countries and they completed 3361 repairs. Yet we rarely see or hear about these vital team members. The technology that we see used grows in complexity year on year and represents years of hard work.

Technology Vs able-bodied athletes

The use of assistive technology in sport is not without debate. To what degree is technology merely enabling and when does it actually offer advantage? Paralympic long jump champion Markus Rehm’s bid to complete in the Rio Olympics alongside able-bodied athletes failed when he was unable to prove that his carbon fibre “blade” prosthesis didn’t give him an unfair advantage. Just as we have stringent rules about performance enhancing drugs; could the same apply with technology? Perhaps we should only allow technology that matches the functionality of a standard limb or body – but how could you possibly decide what this limit might be?

Ethically, can we justify limiting a disabled athlete from achieving the very best they can achieve if the technology to do so is available? However, a ceiling on technology such as this may allow us to bring some Olympians and Paralympians together to compete side by side on an equal basis which would be wonderful. On the flip side, technology may allow a disabled athlete to run faster than Usain Bolt and is this a bad thing if they are competing amongst other enabled athletes?

The power to change lives

A key benefit from the technology developed for our athletes is the advances that can then be shared with the rest of the disabled community. Technicians are not just helping to win medals but providing the power with which to change lives. The funding available to support our Paralympians could serve to enhance the whole field of assistive technology which has to be a good thing. I can’t help feeling that stunting the field of elite sports technology development would lessen the assistive technology market overall.

It is not just in the Olympics where technology has the power to change lives. Without technology, those of us with poor eyesight would struggle to work, drive or, in some cases, even cross the room safely. Then there’s the joy on the faces of a two year disabled child and their parents when they first receive their Designability Wizzybug wheelchair and start to realise the potential for freedom, fun and independence delivered by a simple powered wheelchair, that was designed for someone just their size. It never fails to bring a tear to my eye. This piece of technology allows the whole family to function differently and we like to think we change the lives of the child, their siblings and their parents for the better.

Designing solutions that can help someone to achieve what they wish to achieve

The designers, engineers and technicians who work for Designability are all passionate about creating solutions that address unmet need. And by that we mean needs that would enable someone to do what they want and need to do. One element is true for all – if we do it right, it changes lives. No one would be in any doubt that technology changes the life of many Paralympians, and we would love to think that the technology we produce may cause the same glow of success on the faces of those using it, as we saw in Rio.

Just as the technical teams supporting our Paralympians may be the somewhat overlooked heroes of the games, I often feel that Designability’s designers, engineers and technicians hide in the shadows behind the more public facing sides of our charity. But our success and the impacts we achieve are a direct result of their talent and dedication so I would like to send a shout out to all “techies”. In my mind they are all heroes, too.

You can find out more about all the people behind our products transforming people’s lives over on our team page.

Pictures: Paralympics Marathon 2012; Andy, Designability mechanical engineer; Olympic Athletes Parade 2012

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