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Could 3D Printing help Disabled People?


I’ve been hearing a lot about 3D printing over the past six months, and when I read up about it I was sure that it could be used in some way to manufacture specially adapted equipment for disabled people more cheaply. I decided to read about how 3D printing is helping disabled people to explore new ways of facing challenging situations and overcoming them.

What’s all the fuss about?

3D printing has been news for a little while now. It started in large industrial companies and then moved on to areas of medical science. For example, scientists have recently suggested that various transplants such as liver, heart, lung and stem cell could be made much easier to carry out with the introduction of 3D printing. Essentially the  printer uses cells from the patient’s own body to copy a replica of any human tissue or organ – this can then be implanted back into the body without the usual fear of failure or rejection because the organ or tissue is made up of cells which are the recipient’s. 3D printing techniques have also been developed for use with certain types of plastics to create and duplicate objects quickly and cheaply. This has also resulted in 3d printers for home use which cost about £1,000.

So what’s in it for us?

The element of 3D printing that could help disabled people is the art of duplicating products using plastic. Many people say that equipment which they need to continue their daily lives is often obtained from specalists such as rehabilitation officers, doctors and nurses. It can often be very expensive, unwieldy and not as well designed as  it could be. The answer to the extra cost is clear: due to the fact that there are only a small number of these aids made compared to other everyday essentials, they cost more because there isn’t a large market. However, 3D printing could lower the cost of one-off items and strengthen the durability of aids for disabled people.

Where’s the evidence? 

 In a recent article by the BBC, wheelchair user Raul Krauthausen who lives in Berlin, bought himself a 3D printer a year ago, the purpose of which was to have some fun making iPhone cases and keychains. Raul soon realised that he could use the printer for far more than just some fun experiments.

He decided to create a ramp that wasn’t ‘too big or too heavy’ that could fit on the back of his wheelchair. This is because he finds it hard to get into buildings when there is a step up to them. He watched online tutorials and taught himself how to make two small texturised blocks that could be fitted onto the back of his wheelchair to make sure he could get into buildings more easily. He says that this works for him as it doesn’t have to be a complete solution.  He still has to ask someone to set up the ramp for him – but as he says ‘that’s not a showstopper.’

Denise Stephens who has co-founded Enabled by Design has multiple sclerosis. She says that things would be made a lot easier for her to use if they had bigger textured buttons as she finds dexterity difficult. People have also been experimenting with making white canes.

Student Oliver Baskaran has limited movement. He took part in a project at Warwick University to make equipoment for people with complex needs using 3D printing plastic materials. He now has a new printed device which allows him to enjoy a drink at the pub independently  – it locks his straw into place in a bottle of any size. Solutions like this make the world of difference to people’s lives – all with a printer and some plastic.

I’ve also been reading a lovely story about a little boy called Rayden who lives in Hawaii. The three-year-old was born without fingers on one of his hands. His family could not afford a traditional prosthetic hand which can cost as much as £25,000. Instead the family got in touch with a company that uses 3D printing  to create mechanical hands costing around £30. They even customised the colours of the hand so that they are the same as his favourite superhero, Iron Man!

What next?

3D printers are inevitably going to have a huge impact on the lives of disabled people. They have already made some remarkable breakthroughs in creating cheap, affordable, easy-to-use technology for different disabilities. The best thing is that it can be duplicated incredibly easily. All we have to do now is sit back and wait – this technology does, and will, change the lives of so many disabled people for the better.









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