«Being an engineer with a physical disability, I see things from both perspectives»
28.08.2023 In the past three months, PhD-student Diana Guimaraes from Porto, Portugal, has been an intern at the Laboratory for Rehabilitation Engineering at Bern University of Applied Sciences BFH. As an engineer depending on a wheelchair, she brings valuable insights for the development of products that make life easier for people with a disability.
Diana, you studied electrical engineering and are currently doing a PhD at the University of Porto. What made you want to do an internship at BFH?
A few years ago, I heard about the Cybathlon, an international contest where people with physical disabilities compete against each other in tackling everyday tasks, supported by assistive technology systems. I thought that my skills as an electrical engineer may be useful for some of the teams, so I looked into the competitors and BFH was one of them. I messaged Prof. Kenneth Hunt, who is the head of Team BFH-CybaTrike. His team competes in the FES – Functional Electrical Stimulation Bike Race. Moreover, he is the head of the Laboratory for Rehabilitation Engineering (rehaLab). He replied right away and said that I was welcome to come work with his team for three months. I ended up working with them, but also with the SCI-Mobility Laboratory, since the two labs are right next to each other and often collaborate closely.
Why are you particularly interested in functional electrical stimulation (FES)?
Because it does not just make movement possible, it is also beneficial for the health of the users, as we target and activate the muscles directly. Furthermore, there is also some transmission happening from the muscles to the brain. That means there is the potential that the brain starts being aware again, learns the pattern for walking or cycling, and starts collaborating.
What did you particularly enjoy about working at the rehaLab and the SCI-Mobility Laboratory?
At the University of Porto, I am the only one who is working in the area of developing solutions for people with reduced mobility. Here, a whole multidisciplinary team is dedicated to this field. If students get the opportunity to be a part of this team, they should definitely go for it. They can learn a lot from the people working here, and at the same time help make life easier for the future generation of people with disabilities.
For your PhD, you are working on a new product. What exactly are you trying to develop?
The topic of my PhD is “Develop Locomotion Support Systems for people with disabilities”. I am trying to develop a wearable FES system that senses motion and brings the necessary activation to the right muscle. The system should also be small enough so that it can be worn directly on the body without disturbing the user.
What made you dedicate your career to this field?
Developing products for people with disabilities is my way to be helpful instead of just judgemental. Because I think the products for people with a disability need to be improved. The technology is there, but the products often fall short. I was born with cerebral palsy and am disabled. I find it frustrating to see all this technology that is available, only to realise that the specific products often do not work for many people, me included. Small and simple changes could make a big difference.
Why do you think that is the case?
Of course, each disability is very different and even within one group of disabilities, every individual is different. Creating products is all the more difficult. Yet, I believe that companies often do not include user perspectives and practicality issues enough in the development process. That leads to a gap between the engineering side and the user side. That is why working with Sebastian Tobler from the SCI-Mobility Lab is different. Like me, he is a user and an engineer, so he sees things from both perspectives.