You are sitting in the nursery classroom in your special chair watching the other children playing in the sandpit. You can't move over to the sand pit and even if you could, you can't control your arms or hands to play with the sand or the toys. You can't speak to ask for help. How long will it take before you get frustrated and angry? How long will it take before you give up even trying? By being stuck in your seat in one place, how much are you not learning? Maybe the only thing you are learning is that you are helpless.
Occasionally you have a chance to play with some battery powered toys that you can turn on and off with a switch, using your head. You particularly like the bubble machine - it's fun blowing bubbles at your friends and you feel much more involved. You're less keen on the walking pig - it's a bit dull until it falls off the table on to the floor. Sometimes you also get to play on the computer. There's an iPad that you would love to play on, but most of games are just too difficult for you.
We originally developed the Smart Wheelchair for children with severe and complex disabilities like the one described in this scene. We didn't set out to create a mobility aid, but rather a tool for exploration and play. In fact, I remember someone dismissing the Smart Wheelchair as 'just a toy' - which, given the importance of early play for child development, I think is actually a compliment.
Instead of bashing a switch to move a fluffy toy along a table, you can bash a switch and move yourself across the classroom - much more fun, and much more empowering. Instead of waiting for someone to wheel you over to the sandpit, you can drive over yourself. You might still struggle to play with the sand, but at least you can make your presence felt and get yourself noticed by the other children and so maybe they will help you. If you get bored, you can turn around and go off somewhere else: you don't have to wait to someone to ask you and struggle to make yourself understood - you just go.
Now you are mobile, how much more active and involved do you feel?
The first Smart Wheelchair was created in 1988 and over the years I have become more and more convinced that the original ideas behind the Smart Wheelchair, and powered mobility and learning, have been proven. There's something elemental and essential about being mobile and the Smart Wheelchair is a really easy tool for making it happen. I've worked with many children who 'can't work a switch' - 10 minutes later they're off driving round the track, having a great time, and 40 minutes later they're still at it. With the dreaded honking pig, they would be bored in a very short time. Want a motivating tool for assessment and trying our different switches? Want to practice control and switch skills? Want to play games with your kids? Want to give new opportunities for communication, learning, exploration, play? Get mobile!
CALL's founder, Phil Odor, led a project to evaluate the Smart Wheelchairs in the early 90's and you can read the reports and other resources. We found that the mobility offered by the chairs was an effective motivator and had positive effects on assertiveness, exploratory behaviour, persistence, interpersonal interactions and physical control and tone. All of the children who used the chairs developed better control and driving skills.
Our findings were similar to those reported by other researchers, and you can read a full up to date reference list here.
It was clear to us that there was a market for the Smart Wheelchair but we couldn't persuade any wheelchair manufacturers to take it on, so Ian Craig (who designed most of the hardware and software) and I started making and selling the electronics ourselves. (Bits of Smart Chair still occasionally turn up and I know one person still using a chair that we made in 1994!) The Smart Wheelchair won the Gold Award for Special Educational Needs at the BETT 98 conference and exhibition.
In 1999, Smile Smart Technology started commercial manufacture under license from CALL. In 2011, Smile redesigned the whole Smart system and also launched the Smart Platform or DriveDeck, which is particularly useful in schools and for shared use. As far as I know, Smile are the only commercial manufacturer of smart wheelchairs anywhere.
The Smart Wheelchairs can be driven by single or multiple switches; a scanning direction selector; and proportional joysticks. The chairs are intended to be used by children who do not have the physical, perceptual or cognitive abilities to control an ordinary powered mobility aid, and so there are a number of features to protect the user and environment and enhance the activities possible with it.
Bumpers protect the pilot and the environment - on collision the chair stops and backs off, and/or turns away from the obstacle. This means you can 'bump and turn' your way round the room with just a single switch. The new Smile Smart chairs now have ultrasonic sensors to stop the chair before it hits anything: good news for paintwork.
A track follower lets the chair follow lines on the floor from room to room or through tight situations like doorways. This is a great tool for games and activities because you can be reasonably sure that the driver will be safe, which means you are free to walk beside them, play games, and observe what's going on, instead of hovering behind them with your finger next to the 'off' button.
Lastly, a speech synthesiser feeds back information about what's going on (e.g. "I've hit something, I'll back off and turn right!") to the driver, or confirms the commands from the driver (e.g. "I'm going forward!"). The new Smile Smart chairs have a recorded human voice rather than the somewhat daleky synthesiser we started with in the 90's.
The technical systems are designed to be complementary to the user: the Smart Wheelchair is not a robot for carting children around as this would have little educational or therapeutic value. The control of the chair is a partnership between the pilot and the chair itself. Each chair is provided with individual facilities, switches and controls chosen to meet educational and therapeutic aims for the individual child, according to the skills of the user and the nature of the environment.