Accessibility, Life Care Plan, Technology, Vocational Rehabilitation

Virtual Wheelchair Training: Empathy Equals Innovation!

 December 20, 2017

By  Deborah L Weiner Katz, OTR/L, CCM, CLCP

Did you read our post about merging exoskeletons with virtual reality? Be sure to do that, but first let us tell you about the newest way that virtual reality is enhancing the lives of our friends in wheelchairs. Let us share the story of an “empathy project” conceived by a design team upon recognizing the need first-time wheelchair users might have for ‘training’ before hitting the road for real.

Science has the power to trigger the imagination of writers and artists, who create science fiction, which sometimes inspires innovators to build amazing technology. Virtual reality is a result of that very cycle, a technological marvel that was exclusively science fiction until not so long ago. It also happens to be the force behind an entirely new cycle of innovation that began, not with science fiction, but with a documentary, a film that put a team of designers in touch with a whole other kind of muse: empathy.

Our empathy for our clients drives our quest for knowledge. Fjord, a design and innovation consulting company, found inspiration in the empathy generated by When I Walk, a documentary by wheelchair-bound filmmaker Jason DaSilva. The result was a virtual reality system that lets people push a real wheelchair through a virtual world.

Seeing the plight of the disabled through their own eyes resulted in an application where other non-disabled people could glimpse the world that wheelchair users interact with. That is called sympathy. Empathy, on the other hand, truly shows you the world through someone’s eyes. This forced the designers to realize that there was a more practical application for the VR technology.

In the hands of someone who is not disabled, VR would end up as nothing more than a game, albeit an educational one. As a simulator, its creators found its true purpose. It is a long road, both literally and figuratively, from the rehab room to the streets and sidewalks of the outside world. That transition is one of many things the non-disabled take for granted. Fortunately, the brilliant folks at Fjord did not.

So who is the man whose work led to virtual wheelchair training? What did he show the world that caused the innovators at Fjord to start their project?  In 2014, Jason DaSilva was named Person of the Year by New Mobility, the magazine for active wheelchair users. When he was 25, he was diagnosed with primary progressive MS. Other types of the neurological disorder can be treated by FDA-approved drugs, but not this one. There are no remissions. If you or are I were presented with this reality, who can say how well it would be taken? DaSilva knew one thing. He was still an artist. So, he put a camera on his struggle. The result was the acclaimed documentary, When I Walk.

What happens when the disabled artist documents his or her life? It is the same thing that happens when anyone chooses to do so.  DaSilva travels the world in search of answers. He falls in love. Yet, only by seeing the world through his eyes, did the designers at Fjord find their own purpose.


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