Two days after I fell off my bike, a chance encounter led me to the Tikkun Olam Makeathon for people with disabilities. It was my first-ever Maker event, and I felt like Alice in Wonderland
Two weeks ago I fell off my bike going down a hill. In the emergency room, they put a cast on my broken foot with instructions to stay off it for two weeks.
“This is the last thing I need,” I thought to myself. “I am too busy for this.” After two self-pitying days of waking up in the morning and seeing the cast was still there, I decided to go out and do errands with my wheelchair and crutches.
It wasn’t easy. My arms and neck hurt from pushing the wheelchair. I would pause, out of breath, and realize I had barely budged. Curbs were a nightmare, and stairs an impossibility. And then there were all the (presumably able-bodied) drivers who parked their vehicles in the middle of the sidewalk, forcing my wheelchair into the street.
But there were also moments of grace. Every five minutes someone stopped me to tell me about the time they had broken their own leg. Random people asked me where I needed to go, then pushed me part or all of the way there. Some decided to share the struggles in their own lives: “My father is sick in the hospital, and we’re not sure what will happen to him,” or “I don’t have enough money to finish the month.” After an hour outside with my broken foot, I had met more people than I normally do in two weeks.
Around lunchtime I sat down in a vegetarian café near the Tel Aviv seaside. As I sipped lemonade, a group of people arrived from a conference wearing name tags.
“What conference are you from?”
“We are the judges from the Tikkun Olam Makeathon. Are you hungry? Why don’t you join us?”
The people at the table introduced themselves. There was Marcelo, the CEO of a company that fitted the homes of people with disabilities, Nir, the co-founder of a social tech booster called Tech for Good, and Nahman, the head of a non-profit that uses cutting-edge technology to help people with disabilities. One woman at the table described movingly how she had lost her son to a degenerative disease and decided from then on to dedicate her life to society’s less abled.
“We’re having an awards ceremony at the Hilton Hotel,” said Jonah Fisher from the Reut Institute. “Would you like to come?”
“Sure, why not?”
Alice in Makerland
When I entered the Hilton Hotel, I saw hundreds of busy people in business attire walking back and forth nibbling canapes. I was suddenly surrounded as people vied for the chance to push my wheelchair or bring me a glass of water. Not only that, there were also high-tech contraptions everywhere: bionic hands, buzzing 3D printers, wheelchairs with moving legs and smart crutches that transmit information about your gait to a smartphone app.
“That cast you have on is very primitive,” Nahman Plotnitzky said, looking at my plaster of Paris contraption. “Why don’t you come to Milbat and we’ll set you up with a high-tech waterproof kind?”
In the bathroom, a woman helped me open the door to the handicapped stall. Her name was Pnina Steinberg of the Alin Beit Noam Disability Studies Institute.
“I am developing a social network for people with mental disabilities,” she said, a safe space where they can socialize online. “Do you know anyone doing similar things?”
Inadvertently, I had stumbled into the annual conference of the Jewish Funders Network, of which the Tikkun Olam Makeathon was a central event. This year’s theme was using technology to help people with disabilities. For 72 hours, 16 teams of volunteers had labored day and night to devise prototypes for affordable solutions that would make daily life easier and help people with disabilities integrate into the community. The participants were designers, tech people, health care professionals, and the people with disabilities themselves. The philanthropists behind TLV:TOM, as the event is known in short, would then contribute funds to bring these devices to market.
The Maker Movement and maker events take cheap or everyday objects, I learned, upgrade them with technology, and try to make them useful. It is grassroots, local and often socially conscious. Indeed, there was a feeling of mission and excitement at the event that is hard to describe.
As the lights dimmed, the 16 teams revealed their projects.
A team from Intel developed a project to transform mundane rehabilitation tasks into games by combining physical devices with software and tablets. Rehabilitation can be boring and as a result, patients often abandon their exercises or do less than they should. The Intel project was designed to keep them interested and was created in conjunction with the Clalit Beit Lowenstein Rehabilitation Hospital.
Jobs for the hard of hearing
A team from Israel Aircraft Industries developed “Knock Knock,” a device that translates speech to text and enables individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to know if there is a response to a door knock. The project was created in conjunction with the Tel Aviv Hilton in order to include individuals who are hard of hearing in their workforce. The project was awarded the Reut Institute prize for Community Integration.
Preventing pressure sores and turning pages
Another team developed “Active Wheelchair,” a redesign of a wheelchair that raises the feet and legs to prevent pressure sores through movement. The wheelchair was awarded the ROI Community Prize for Collaborative Competition.
Another team developed the “Accessi Book,” a device that automatically turns pages in a book. Sefi Udi, who is a quadriplegic, asked the team to help develop a system that would allow him to turn pages in a book. The project was awarded the Deloitte Prize for Affordability.
“Connected Crutches” are a redesign of crutches alleviate pressure on the shoulders and arms and incorporates Bluetooth sensors which allows the user to answer a cell phone easily and also collect important medical data. The crutches were awarded the TOM:TLV Prize for Innovation
“Hands On” is a 3D printed prosthetic hand that incorporates sensors that allows users to control the level of force they use while activating the hand. The sensors also sense heat and cold. Hands On was awarded the Sparks Prize for Smart Development.
Other notable projects included the following:
1. “Hand Tremors,” a weighted glove that lessens hand tremors and helps individuals who have hand tremors perform daily tasks, such as eating and using computer keyboards. Therapists from Alyn hospital took part in this project.
2. “Next Step” is a redesign of a walker that allows it to have two ‘legs” which let the user easily climb stairs without having to lift a full walker.
3. “Beauty Braces” are customized braces and splints that are lighter, attractive and ergonomically designed.
4. “Communication Board” is a digital communication “smart” board for non-neurotypical children to help them communicate through images and stories.
5. “Breathe Meter” is a device that serves as an automatic, objective respiration test for ALS patients that can be downloaded onto a smartphone. This project was created by Prize for Life, an Israeli non-profit organization that works with ALS patients.
6. “Kite Surfing” is a special chair and attachment to a traditional kite surfing board that allows people in wheelchairs to kite surf.
7. “Inclusive Games” are a new board game which incorporates music and allows children with cognitive disabilities to play together with able-bodied children at the same level.
8. “Get Back on a Wheelchair” is a special device that allows a person who uses a wheelchair to lower himself to the ground or onto another chair and then raise himself back into his wheelchair.
The beginning of a revolution
“This is just the beginning of a revolution that will become global,” said Reut Institute president Gidi Grinstein. “We at TOM together with our maker partners believe that it is our obligation to use technology to repair the world, and to make technological products available and affordable to everyone everywhere.”
When I left the Makeathon, I was dazzled both by the innovative spirit and the kindness driving it. Many of these devices may not be profitable enough for the private sector to develop, but with a little push, they can improve the lives of many people. Zohar Mandel, a spokeswoman for the Reut Institute told Geektime that they are currently looking for investors to help develop the products, which have already seen a groundswell of interest and demand from people with disabilities themselves.
What a day! I realized I probably never would have come to this place if I hadn’t broken my foot. Clearly, it’s no fun having an injury. But if there is any silver lining to my experience, it’s that I had the opportunity to learn how many kind people are out there.