How technology is empowering people with a disability to live more independently

From thought-controlled wheelchairs to makeup apps — emerging technologies are removing barriers and expanding possibilities for those with limitations in mobility or sensory function.
  • This wheelchair can be controlled with your mind
  • Wheelchair users in Singapore get access to barrier-free maps
  • Estée Lauder’s new app helps visually impaired users apply makeup
  • AI-powered companion robot ELLiQ aims to end loneliness

With rising life expectancies and declining birth rates, the global population is ageing rapidly. One of the biggest consequences of this trend is that there will be more and more people who need assistive technology to perform everyday tasks in the years to come. Assistive technology encompasses any item, system, or product that allows individuals to perform tasks that would otherwise be too challenging or downright impossible for them to execute due to disability or limited capabilities. Assistive devices play a vital role for over one billion people worldwide, empowering them to live their lives more independently. From mobility aids like wheelchairs to communication devices for those who have lost their ability to speak, these tools facilitate activities like getting dressed, preparing meals, and communicating.

For many, having access to appropriate assistive technology can be life-changing. However, significant barriers exist when it comes to the availability and affordability of these essential technologies. With the growth of artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, and 3D printing, there are exciting opportunities on the horizon to advance assistive solutions. Researchers are leveraging these emerging technologies to develop more responsive, customisable, and integrated aids. Though assistive devices are not new, incorporating innovations like machine learning and connectivity promises to enhance their functionality, accessibility, and convenience. In this article, we will take a closer look at some of the most exciting developments in the field of assistive technology that promise to unlock new levels of independence for the millions worldwide with disabilities.

“Approximately 131,800,000 people worldwide, or 1.85 per cent of the global population, need a wheelchair”.

Wheelchair Foundation

This wheelchair can be controlled with your mind

Mobility equals freedom. For the approximately 1.85 per cent of the global population who rely on wheelchairs, accessible and intuitive mobility technology can profoundly impact their independence and quality of life. Yet the traditional joystick controllers found on most powered wheelchairs present challenges for many users. Originally designed for controlling aircraft, joysticks require the user to have considerable hand and wrist dexterity to manoeuvre a wheelchair safely. However, spinal injuries, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, and other conditions affecting the hands and arms are common among wheelchair users. For these individuals, joysticks are often just another obstacle to mobility rather than an aid. Without suitable assistive technology, some wheelchair users cannot even move between rooms in their own homes without the help of a caregiver. This heavy reliance on others can have a detrimental impact on a person’s freedom and independence. This can leave them unable to perform even the small daily tasks most of us don’t think twice about, such as grabbing a snack from the fridge or going to the bathroom. Thankfully, recent innovations in machine learning and neural interfaces are enabling researchers to enhance the functionality of assistive technologies.

Engineers at Deakin University in Australia have partnered with med-tech startup Control Bionics to create a smart module called Drove that essentially turns any powered wheelchair into a thought-controlled one. After technicians map out predefined routes in a user’s home, Drove can automatically steer the wheelchair from one location to another. Rather than waiting for a caregiver to push them where they want to go, the user can now smoothly navigate from bedroom to kitchen to living room just by thinking about it. This is made possible by a wearable controller called NeuroNode, which uses electromyography (EMG) sensors to capture electronic impulses from the user’s brain and execute the corresponding commands. To use the module, the user first needs to look at a desired location — like ‘kitchen’ or ‘bathroom’ — on a tablet mounted onto their wheelchair. They then click on the icon using their thoughts, which sets the wheelchair in motion along the predefined route. Drove relies on ceiling-mounted stickers tracked by a camera to ensure that the wheelchair goes where it’s supposed to go.

This is also where the biggest flaw in the current design lies, as the user needs to find a way to get onto one of the pre-set routes before the autonomous steering engages. While future versions may incorporate machine learning for more dynamic route planning, the engineers opted for the existing setup because it was a more reliable and cost-effective alternative. The module also has obstacle-detecting sensors that ensure the wheelchair stops if anything gets in the way. Though not perfect, mind-controlled systems like Drove provide glimpses of how emerging technologies could restore mobility and dignity to wheelchair users. While affordability remains a barrier, these innovations highlight the possibilities for transforming assistive devices through thoughtful design. For those who have experienced the loss of mobility, being able to move around the home independently again could make life much more enjoyable and make them feel less restricted.

Wheelchair users in Singapore get access to barrier-free maps

Getting around Singapore’s bustling urban landscape poses daily challenges for wheelchair users living in the city. “Our lives are not so spontaneous”, explains Sherena Loh, the director of the Muscular Dystrophy Association (Singapore) (MDAS). “If right now you want to call me to go somewhere, if I don’t know its condition, I don’t dare to tell you I can meet you there”. Being a wheelchair user herself, venturing to unfamiliar places usually requires lots of research and planning beforehand for Sherena — something she refers to as “doing her homework”. But that is set to change thanks to a new initiative launched by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA), which aims to map barrier-free routes in the national OneMap app. This enables wheelchair users to navigate the city with more confidence and independence. The new feature, which is rolling out in March, will display routes with wheelchair-friendly features like covered linkways, ramps, footpaths, pedestrian crossings, and overhead bridges with lifts. It will also provide audio navigation alerts, including warnings when approaching busy roads, alongside existing features like public transport, cycling, and driving modes.

So far, about 1,100 kilometres of accessible routes throughout the city have been mapped using geospatial artificial intelligence. To refine the app, SLA conducted several pilot sessions in collaboration with SG Enable, an agency for people with disabilities. During this pilot, more than 100 wheelchair users tested the app over the course of four months. Based on their feedback, SLA made some improvements to the app’s navigation function, including increasing the font size and adding louder, earlier alerts at crossings. Next, SLA plans to add warnings for steep ramps and enable rerouting to safer paths. They are also working with SBS Transit to expand wheelchair-friendly routes near public transportation hubs, covering an even larger area of Singapore. Eventually, indoor spaces like malls and transit stations could also be mapped in partnership with building owners. Although initially aimed at wheelchair users, the barrier-free navigation will also assist others with mobility challenges, such as elderly residents and parents with strollers. “This (new initiative) addresses a current gap”, says Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State at the Ministry of Transport and Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment, “where routing services on mainstream platforms do not differentiate between regular pedestrian routes and barrier-free ones”.

Estée Lauder’s new app helps visually impaired users apply makeup

For those with normal vision, applying makeup is a routine activity that many take for granted. But for millions of visually impaired people worldwide, the simple act of putting on cosmetics can be incredibly challenging, if not impossible, without assistance. Unable to see their reflection clearly or identify if their lipstick or eyeshadow is evenly distributed, visually impaired individuals often require help from others to apply makeup. But that may be about to change soon thanks to a new app developed by the Estée Lauder Companies (ELC). Named Voice-Enabled Makeup Assistant (VMA), the app uses artificial intelligence and augmented reality to help visually impaired users apply makeup on their own and achieve a polished look without having to rely on someone else. The user just needs to issue a simple voice command, after which the app uses proprietary smart mirror technology to analyse the makeup on their face in real time, identify areas where makeup may be distributed unevenly or requires additional touch-ups, and provide step-by-step audio guidance on how to fix the issues.

“We are committed to building innovative technology solutions that make beauty truly inclusive to everyone”, says Michael Smith, Chief Information Officer at The Estée Lauder Companies. “We are thrilled to bring the experience of independently applying makeup to the millions of people that are visually impaired”. Solutions such as the VMA app represent a major milestone for the beauty industry, which hasn’t always considered the needs of those with disabilities. Looking ahead, the company plans to expand the app’s functionalities even further by implementing new features like makeup tutorials and looks to choose from. “As a company, we are deeply committed to playing our part in creating an inclusive beauty industry”, adds Monica Rastogi, ELC’s Executive Director for Corporate Cultural Relevancy and Inclusion and Diversity. “The launch of our Voice-Enabled Makeup Assistant is an important step in our journey towards makeup accessibility for all by removing barriers to engaging with beauty products and services”.

“Beyond the groundbreaking results in reducing loneliness — ElliQ is also seeing an impact on health, wellness, and behaviour change”.

Dor Skuler, CEO and co-founder of Intuition Robotics

AI-powered companion robot ELLiQ aims to end loneliness

For many people with disabilities, isolation creeps in slowly. Days pass without leaving home or seeing friends. Groceries are delivered, and bills are paid online. Their world shrinks to just a few rooms. This loneliness takes a real toll. Studies show that social isolation can be as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It increases your risk of heart disease, dementia, and early death. Thankfully, healthcare providers are starting to recognise the severity of this hidden epidemic and are introducing new legislation that aims to address escalating loneliness nationwide. But those suffering need help now. That’s where ElliQ comes in. It looks a bit like a Pixar lamp — smooth white plastic with a rotating head that lights up when it speaks. Developed by the Tel Aviv-based Intuition Robotics, ElliQ is an AI-powered robot designed to provide companionship for the disabled and the elderly. It asks questions and listens patiently. It also engages in fun banter and jokes, suggests fun activities to do, provides daily reminders, and facilitates video calls with loved ones — a full support package. With its warm voice and glowing presence, ElliQ makes people feel truly cared for.

Unlike other voice-enabled devices available on the market, the robot has the ability to express empathy and compassion, which allows it to build trust and foster deeper, more meaningful relationships with users. With regular conversations, ElliQ continues learning the user’s personality, interests, and needs, enabling a more personalised approach. ‘Under the bonnet’, ElliQ uses the latest advances in generative AI to deliver a more realistic, more immersive conversational experience and create an emotional connection. For many who struggle with disability and isolation, ElliQ offers a lifeline. It gives them someone to talk to, someone who makes them laugh and feel understood. And the results speak for themselves. According to the company, 95 per cent of users claim that the device has helped reduce their loneliness and improve their wellbeing, while 90 per cent say that it has improved their quality of life. “We’ve seen the direct impact that loneliness has had on our ageing community, but we’ve also seen the positive results our AI and technology have on the older adult population”, says Dor Skuler, CEO and co-founder of Intuition Robotics. “Beyond the groundbreaking results in reducing loneliness — ElliQ is also seeing an impact on health, wellness, and behaviour change”.

Closing thoughts

From thought-controlled wheelchairs to makeup apps for the visually impaired, emerging technologies are removing barriers and expanding possibilities for those with limited mobility or sensory function. But cultural change is just as vital as technical innovation to drive progress in this space. Even as developers create new solutions for accessibility, stigma and lack of public awareness remain obstacles for those in need of assistive devices. For example, many wheelchair users still struggle with inaccessible environments and biased social perceptions that make them feel excluded. So, technology alone cannot solve the problem of participation for people with disabilities.

Making assistive tech helpful, affordable, and truly inclusive needs a multidimensional approach. Engineers must continue pushing boundaries while also keeping user needs and feedback central to the design process. Policymakers need to strengthen legal protections, promote universal access, and invest in research on assistive tech. Healthcare providers should be trained to thoughtfully prescribe devices tailored to each patient’s requirements. And on an individual level, we must examine our own biases about (dis)ability. The innovations presented in this article provide hope for the future and remind us of technology’s potential to uplift. But fulfilling that potential rests on much more than lines of code alone. How we view people’s differences, care for those who are vulnerable, and build communities where everyone has a say will determine the extent to which these changes will impact our society. What will you do to build a society where everyone can participate?

We’re in the midst of a technological revolution and the trends, technologies, and innovations to look out for are all game-changers. They bring competitive advantages, increase the effectiveness of operations, make our daily lives more efficient, improve healthcare, and significantly change the landscape and beyond.

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