Dirk Jan Buter's
Aspiring Innovators Magazine

Thursday, April 4, 2024

Improving the lives of people with disabilities

Dicky, my great-aunt I was named after (my nickname is Dick), was confined to a wheelchair most of her life. At the age of 18, she was diagnosed with polio. As a child, we, together with my parents, visited her regularly. She lived in De Ark, a residential facility for children and adults with severe polio paralysis. It was built in 1958, right next to the Zuiderziekenhuis (hospital), after a polio epidemic shook Rotterdam (Netherlands).

Impact on Others

She depended on others for everything. What she could still do was operate her electric wheelchair, and she could also write small pieces. Talking went on between gasps and took a lot of patience. She wrote with her right hand, with a ballpoint pen between index and middle finger. She always sent postcards to everyone. Birthday cards, Christmas cards, or just any card. She was involved, very social, and a listening ear for many people. People around her often came to her for advice.

Three-Year Struggle in an Iron Lung

At the beginning of her illness, she lay in a mega tube, a mechanical ventilator called an iron lung, for three years. Imagine lying still for three years in such a large cylinder! You can’t even scratch your nose if you're itchy, let alone go to the toilet.

Later, a ventilator replaced the iron lung, using compressed air. That compressed air came through the wall to De Ark from the large compressor in the adjacent hospital. She used compressed air cylinders until modern ventilators powered by electricity became available. It could also work with a car battery so she could go on a foreign holiday once. That one foreign holiday was a risky undertaking, which also included nursing. She had the time of her life in France, as far as that was possible, of course.

Memories of Inspiration

I always admired her, as she was strong and had a zest for life despite her severe disability. As a child, I dreamed of making her life better so that she could walk again or that she would receive aids that would make her life easier. Of course, that was not realistic, also because, as a child, I could do little, which made me angry with a feeling of powerlessness. Talking about these memories with family members makes me realize what an inspiration she has been to me.

A Glimpse of Hope

Fortunately, technological developments continue, and I hope that we will not need wheelchairs anymore. That there will be no more sick people. Until then, we can make these people’s lives more pleasant with aids or help with the search for a possible cure. Whether through prosthetic limbs, adapted treatments, or assistive devices, technology has opened up opportunities for people with disabilities to live more independently. One of the most exciting developments is artificial intelligence and biotechnology.

Promising Developments

An example of this is using biotechnology to create personalized treatments and therapies tailored to the individual needs of people with disabilities. Also, I see great potential for artificial intelligence in diagnosis and treatment to use automated diagnosis. So that it not only provides more accuracy but also a speed gain. Artificial intelligence can also help develop targeted, tailor-made therapies.

A Better Life

I am sure many more solutions can contribute to a better life for people with disabilities. Ultimately, it is to heal people. That no one has to get sick anymore.

Missed Chance

Thanks to administering vaccinations, polio has been significantly reduced to the number of yearly cases. Dicky had just missed that chance because before she got sick, they vaccinated children already. It wasn't her turn yet because she was a little older. She had a lot of bad luck and unfortunate circumstances, which no one could do anything about.Vaccinations have already prevented a lot of suffering in the world. Nowadays, parents are increasingly choosing not to have their children vaccinated. Now you probably understand why this is worrying.

Technology for Lasting Change

As technologies evolve, it is impossible to predict the full extent of the opportunities they will provide for people with disabilities. However, they will undoubtedly have a significant impact in the future. To ensure no one ever has to go through experiences like Dicky’s again.

Photo of Dicky

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