health & science

Doctor’s plight to fix disability sector

Dr Jordan Nguyen has spent his career trying to find innovative solutions to centralise the disability sector. He spoke to Sasha Borissenko.

A scare from a diving board injury set Jordan Nguyen on a path to becoming a noted public speaker, doctor, documentary maker, author and engineer.

The 34 year-old's multi-talented CV began to emerge when he was at university. He jumped off of a faulty diving board attached to a backyard pool and almost broke his neck. Having suffered minor tearing, he couldn't move for a day and a half.

Being immobile in hospital made him think differently about life and disabilities.

“It was a pretty scary and debilitating time, for sure.”

Nguyen’s only exposure to the disability community at the time was Superman’s Christopher Reeves, who broke his neck after falling from a horse. Only once he was immobile that he realised there were so many varieties of disabilities that aren't catered for. 

“I guess I just started to become really interested in this section of society. I started to seek out different stories because I wanted to know what life was like for these people. After extensive research I found that a lot of people don’t have, or lose independence, and I guess I’ve spent my career trying to change that.

“I started to meet people who were really happy and motivated in their life, but wanted more independence, and more from the technology that was on offer.”

One in five people in Australia has some form of disability, with 1.4 million having some sort of severe or profound disability. And so it was. Nguyen started to think about engineering a different form of wheelchair to accommodate different forms of disability.

“Sure you can control a manual wheelchair with your hands, or there’s a chin-stick or puffing tube. But that requires a good range of movement in your head or jaw. But what about those individuals who don’t have those capabilities?"

As part of a PhD in biomedical engineering, Nguyen set out to create a wheelchair that could be operated through brain waves - electrical signals created from eye-movement - in 2012.

Dr Jordan Nguyen's Thought-controlled Smart Wheelchair

“Of all the people I’ve met with varying disabilities, I’ve noticed everyone uses their eyes. At the time it seemed like science fiction. The process was turbulent, sure, but we did it. The thing is though, any medical device takes ages to get to market, so there’s a still a long road ahead.”

In the meantime, Nguyen has broadened this eye-controlling technology to include gaming devices, home operating systems, but the main issue is that there’s no centralisation with the technologies on offer.

“We’ve come a long way, but one of the problems is society has to change. Sure it’s become more inclusive and infrastructure is more inclusive. But technology in the disability sector is very fragmented, and lags behind because we’re dealing with much smaller markets.”

And that becomes an access issue. “The technology is more expensive for people with disabilities, because if you think of it in a supply and demand sense, mainstream technology is designed for the masses”.

For example, a family wants a communication system for their child who has a disability. It would allow the child to speak for themselves, to have that bit of independence. So the family buys an expensive device, which normally includes a PC and eye tracker. Then that child also wants to buy a game, but the package is incompatible with that PC and eye tracker. “It is an extremely painful and expensive enterprise. I mean, one computer set-up is about AU$18-30,000” Nguyen says.

One of the main challenges is that iPads don’t come with eye trackers. So through his company, Psykinetic, Nguyen has been trying to roll-out a centralised App-store of sorts to bring together what is a very fragmented market.

It could mean you could access different things and different technologies using only one form of computer system.

“If you can have complete control of your PC and access other things through a centralised system, it would mean you could control your home, your music devices, you could connect with the world, you could get even get a job through the global digital economy.

“I’m interested in the intersection between technology and humanity. So I’ve taken on different projects in an attempt to find innovative ways to improve lives.”

The Auckland Convention Bureau, a division of Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development, has created the biz b4 nine series alongside Celebrity Speakers to engage business event organisers and academics through speakers like Dr Jordan Nguyen.

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