Advanced tools turn disabled person's life into a mobile, safe and communicative adventure

Antwerp 30 November 1999Driving a wheelchair with only one finger or surfing the Internet handsfree with a laserpointer... The Technology Centre for Disabled Persons (CTG), hosted at the University of Antwerp (RUCA) campus, has designed a variety of advanced and innovative tools since its inception in 1990. Made to measure solutions bring comfort to the patient in cases where the physician or the physiotherapist no longer can guarantee further recovery. Recently, the Flemish government has awarded CTG a budget of 275.000 euro for the development of a special sensor to detect unconsciousness due to a patient's fall. The CTG grant fits in with the Strategic Technologies for Well-being and Welfare (STWW) Programme.

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Dr. Victor Claes, an electronics engineer and founder of the CTG, explains that he and Professor Bart Van Gheluwe, head of the Laboratory for Biomechanics and Biometrics at the Free University of Brussels will study a great number of human falling movements to identify their specific features. The aim is to develop an alarm system that correctly recognises every falling movement causing unconsciousness, through sensor-registered data, such as the position of the body, its fall rate and vibrations. A mathematician will join the team to accurately define the requested algorithms and calculation methods. In the next phase, a prototype will be built, tested and optimised for actual use within two years.

A similar sensor allows to detect the regular convulsions which anticipate an epileptic attack. The CTG has installed a sensor on the mattress of a patient who remains in an institution for mentally handicapped persons. The device signalises each nocturnal attack to the nurse, allowing her to administer the right medicaments immediately. This type of sensor can equally be used for the objective evaluation of patients with Parkinson's disease. Limb trembling is registered at regular intervals of time, allowing the data to be compared to study the impact of a certain therapy, and the disease's progress in general. In this research, the CTG is collaborating with Professor Patrick Cras, who is a professor of neurology at the University Hospital of Antwerp. Shortly, the first clinical tests will start.

Another field of application is diabetes. Some diabetic patients are not aware of their hypoglycaemic condition. This sugar shortage in the blood can lead to consciousness disorders and in the worst case to a coma. The sensor can detect the coma and send emergency signals. People with myopathy in turn suffer from a muscular disease which paralyses their strength. They are still able however to accurately perform small movements. For these patients, the CTG has designed a wheelchair, equipped with a 3D system to be controlled via little finger movements. Dr. Claes has equally developed a microcomputer for a paralysed person. The system reacts to short spoken messages to turn on the light, pick up the phone, etc. Speech technology enables blind people to use a computer which pronounces each letter that is being typed.

The Technology Centre for Disabled Persons forms part of the Laboratory for Human Physiology and Pathophysiology, headed by the two professors, Dirk Brutsaert and Stanislas Sys. Because the CTG is located within the Faculty of Medical and Pharmaceutical Sciences, the CTG engineers can collaborate directly with the specialist-physicians. There exists also a fruitful exchange with the Department of Mathematics and Informatics. This multi-disciplinary approach is a major advantage. The CTG engineers design and develop tools but do not produce them. This is the task of the Centre of Resources (HMC), a non-profit organisation, situated in Deinze. Some CTG solutions only meet the specific needs of one single disabled person. If more people can benefit from a particular application, the HMC manufactures a series of tools.

In fact, the CTG has taken on a responsibility that the industry is unable to fulfil. The required investments in research and development are difficult to account for commercially, if only a small market of sometimes one customer can be served. However, for some of the more popular applications, the CGT has closed licence agreements with the industry, whereas disabled patients pay a contribution for the technology designed by the engineers that is based on the cost price of the used parts. In addition, the CGT receives government funding for special projects. In the end, the Technology Centre has managed to be self-sustaining. The University of Antwerp Newsletter no. 42 has served as the source for this article.


Leslie Versweyveld

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