PHOTO: Sean Fitzgerald can control household devices by moving his head; the silver dot on his forehead connects via infra-red with the computer software. (Alex Fitzgerald (Sean's 10-year old daughter))
Sean Fitzgerald worked hard to rebuild his life after breaking his neck in a mountain bike accident 14 years ago.
For five hours after the crash, before medical help arrived, his then-partner and a passing stranger kept him alive with their breath. He spent two years on a ventilator before breathing again on his own.
Now he helps other people with disabilities rebuild their lives by assessing their technology needs and teaching them how to use a range of devices and equipment, including environmental control units.
“I’d actually tried to get into assistive technology before I broke my neck,” said Mr Fitzgerald, 52, a former electronics engineer and IT worker.
“I would have pushed even harder if I’d have known how fulfilling it is, and how enlightening it is, to have people just literally light up and look back at you amazed that they can use a computer or they can turn light switches on or operate a television, all independently of someone else.
“It’s just fantastic to be able to give people that opportunity and that ability to grow in life I guess, as well.”
As well as running his own business, Mr Fitzgerald is co-convenor of the biennial conference of the Australian Rehabilitation and Assistive Technology Conference, being held in Canberra from August 20 to 22, 2014.
Mr Fitzgerald’s own life has been transformed by the technology he uses.
His electric wheelchair is fitted with controls that can be manipulated by his chin or by using a sip-and-puff system – blowing or sucking air through a straw.
Back in 2001, Mr Fitzgerald realised that remote control wireless technology to open garage doors, for example, could be integrated into his wheelchair system.
In an Australian first, he got the two companies that provide the products to work together to design a new system for his wheelchair that enables him to open and close his front door – as long as there’s not an electricity blackout.
A silver dot and infra-red beams
One of Mr Fitzgerald’s sophisticated computer programs bounces infra-red beams from a laptop camera onto a silver plaster dot on his forehead, which enables him to control household devices by moving his head.
Advances in computer technology, including tablet devices and apps, are also providing greater independence for people with disabilities as well as the opportunity to communicate more easily and find work.
Voice recognition technology has also improved dramatically in the last few decades, and eye gaze communication systems are enhancing the lives of people who have severely limited movement.
“Every year we see the advances in robotics,” Mr Fitzgerald said.
“And we also see the advances in mainstream home electronics and computer electronics that apply so nicely to assistive technology to help people with a disability access the world and have a more normal life.”
After participating in early testing, Mt Fitzgerald became intrigued by the possibility of mind control – using thoughts to change brainwaves.
“That simple change between alpha and beta waves can be used as a switch to operate so many things,” he explained.
Mr Fitzgerald says the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) will make it easier and more affordable for people to get the specialised equipment they need.
“In most of Australia, it’s been really difficult to get funding for often even basic forms of disability equipment like wheelchairs and beds and hoists and the like, let alone all the high-tech stuff that I deal in,” Mr Fitzgerald. “So, yeah – roll on the NDIS, I say.”
Lost without it
Mr Fitzgerald is candid about his reliance on assistive technology.
“I’d be completely lost without it,” he mused.
“That loss of movement independence would have had a tremendous impact on my psyche. Not being able to access the world and communicate would have been another devastating loss and not to be productive and able to participate in work, particularly meaningful work that does something for the world, would have been another devastating loss to my psyche.
“Quite honestly, I’m serious, I don’t think I would have survived."Post Polio Litaff, Association A.C _APPLAC Mexico