Why technology will prove key to overcoming disability

Colin McDonnell operates the scalextric with his wheelchair, with Paula Spencer watching on.
Colin McDonnell operates the scalextric with his wheelchair, with Paula Spencer watching on.
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Can new technology finally give disabled people a real taste of freedom? Katie Baldwin reports.

Before there’s even chance to explain how Colin McDonnell uses his iPhone using only head movements, he’s deftly demonstrating a skill that few could match.

The 20-year-old has athetoid cerebral palsy which means he uses a wheelchair and cannot operate a touch screen phone in the usual way. But that’s not going to stop him.

Instead a gadget scans his phone, which is mounted on his chair in front of him, while Colin uses a switch on the headrest of his chair to indicate when it should stop so he can select a function.As his mum Susan says: “There’s no ‘can’t’ any more. It’s ‘how?’ The centre has been absolutely fantastic for him and their input changes everything.”

Colin has been coming to the William Merritt Disabled Living Centre in Leeds since he was four. It was established in 1981 and named after a former Leeds councillor who pioneered a scheme to help disabled people and encouraged the development of voluntary organisations in the field.No referral is necessary and the centre doesn’t sell equipment – it just advises on what could help and let clients try it out beforehand. That’s why there’s a fully adapted kitchen there, as well as an array of wheelchairs and scooters.

“We can help with lots of things which are not ordinarily available,” says occupational therapist Paula Spencer. “Some of our children have a wheelchair provided by the NHS, but they may want to do wheelchair ballet or wheelchair tennis.”

There are also schemes which enable young people to use the latest technology. As Jan Spencer, chairman of appeals at the centre, explains, there’s nothing worse for a teenager than having to rely on their mum to send text messages.

“It’s allowing people to join in with their family and friends, rather than sitting on the sidelines,” she says.

Paula added: “It’s trying to encourage people to have these ideas about what they want to do and hopefully we can make it happen.”

Colin, who won the Outstanding Bravery Award for teenagers at the Yorkshire Children of Courage Awards in 2012, is not only pushing boundaries himself, but also volunteers at the centre to show others how technology could help them. And he is about to embark on work experience there, sharing the skills he is developing through the diploma in Applied IT he is doing at Leeds City College’s Technology Campus.

“As much as Colin has gained from coming here, he’s also on the lookout all the time for something else that would help another person,” says his mum. “He’s gone through the school system and become an adult, and that’s sometimes been a bit difficult. Here it’s the same people.”

Staff at the centre are now working with hi-tech firms, some of who may never have come across the issues faced by disabled people, but whose expertise could be useful. The latest innovation is Tryb4uFly, a mock-up of an aircraft cabin.

Measuring the same dimensions as a real 747 and with the same seats, donated by British Airways and complete with TV screens, the aim is to allow people with disabilities to see what it’s like on a plane to see whether it can accommodate their or their child’s needs.

“Families might think flying is not an option,” Paula said. “This does make it a real possibility.” Colin is looking forward to trying the service – and this is another innovation from the centre which could help him experience the same things as anyone else.

“It’s the whole thing of joining in with what everybody else is able to do automatically,” says his mum, who is keen to debunk some of the preconceptions around disability. “We just need to break down the barriers. That’s what this is allowing him to do.

“You don’t let things stop you, do you?” she adds affectionately.