KHI News Service

High-tech gear helps disabled live independent, healthier lives

Hundreds attend expo in Topeka

By Phil Cauthon | September 13, 2013

Sheila Simmons of Assistive Technology for Kansans talks with Brian Green of Global Extreme Mobility at the semi-annual Assistive Technology Expo in Topeka, which featured 81 vendors from six states and was attended by some 700 people. Alabama-based Global Extreme Mobility makes affordable all-terrain wheelchairs.

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Nearly 700 people here today got a look at the latest technology designed to help people with disabilities.

The semi-annual Assistive Technology Expo was organized by Assistive Technology for Kansans (ATK), a federally funded center at the University Kansas that connects people with disabilities and health conditions with tools to help them learn, work, play, and live independently.

ATK coordinator Sheila Simmons said that the first expo 20 years ago was organized as a way to expose people to the variety of products and customized tools developed each year.

"The idea is to get technology into people's hands," Simmons said. "With these tools, kids with disabilities can learn in a regular classroom, people can get a job or get a better job, and more and more with seniors, they can live safely in their own homes."

ATK was one of five recipients of grants from United Healthcare, one of the three managed care organizations awarded contracts to administer Kansas' Medicaid program, which is called KanCare.

The grant — part of a $1.5 million initiative to serve the disabled — launched today at a ceremony in Overland Park with Gov. Sam Brownback.

ATK received $76,000 to help 45 people in Parsons, Wichita, and Topeka find jobs and improve their health. Simmons said ATK will start accepting applications for the grant aid in October via their website.

"The Managed Care Organizations are ahead of the curve on this, because they recognize there is something to prevention. Prevention saves money," Simmons said. "They recognize that their members need to manage their health more effectively. And especially when you get into rural Kansas — that is critical."

Among the tools being demonstrated by the 81 exhibitors from six states:

MedMinder, a prescription monitoring device that integrates with the internet and other communications technology to send notifications to alert caregivers via text messages, emails or phones, if medications are not taken on time.

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Medication management and monitoring

A device that looks deceptively like a traditional pill box helps patients stick to their medication schedules — and if they don't, alerts their caregivers. The cost: $40 a month.

A compartment on the box lights up when it's time to take medications. If too much time lapses before the box is opened, an alarm sounds to remind the patient. If medications are entirely skipped, notifications can be set to alert caregivers via text message, email or phone.

All the data is logged online and can be accessed by patients, caregivers and physicians. The easy-to-read chart marks timely medications in green and skipped medications in red.

Karl Hockenbarger and Rod Shriwise are local vendors of the technology. Hockenbarger pointed to a study released in June indicating that for every dollar spent on medication management technology, "$10.10 (is saved) for hypertension, $8.40 for congestive heart failure, $6.70 for diabetes and $3.10 for dyslipidemia."

"The estimate going around right now is that $3.17 billion of medical spending per year is attributable to people not adhering to their medication regimen. Noncompliance leads to 11 percent of hospital readmissions," Hockenbarger said. "Given the magnitude of medication mismanagement, this technology has great potential to save the system significant money, while increasing health benefits."

John Kovelan of Doctors Equipment Service with a device that facilitates lifting and moving patients better than traditional sling-and-pully devices.

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Lifting technology

Several devices were on display that were newly engineered approaches to lifting patients with limited ability to move themselves.

There are more workplace injuries in the U.S. health care industry than in any other field, and much of the injuries are attributable to moving obese, disabled, or elderly patients.

Medicare will cover a basic sling-and-pully lifting device, which costs about $900, said John Kovelan of Doctors Equipment Service. But those devices often require more that one assistant to operate and can be dangerous if a patient has a seizure or becomes agitated while being moved.

The device Kovelan was demonstrating ($3,400) grabs a patient around the chest like a giant human hand. It can pick up patients in virtually any position and reposition them, he said. Some models have a scale built in to the arm.

"I weigh 270 pounds, and you could move me anywhere you want in here with your pinky finger," he said.

All-terrain wheelchairs

Each of a half-dozen base models are custom-made based on a person's weight and height, and are capable of scaling uneven hills without tipping over, traversing sand or water, or getting over curbs or other obstacles that restrict normal wheelchairs to the sidewalk.

Alabama-based start-up company Global Extreme Mobility started commercially selling the chairs last year after fabricating them out of a garage for six years.

Brian Green — who runs the company with his sister — said the company originated in 2004 when his stepfather Jerry Nasello found out he had Lou Gehrig's disease. With no readily available, affordable options for accessing the beach, Nasello crafted his own out of PVC and bubble tires.

"Scooters will get you some places, but this will get you most anywhere. This gives people independence and allows them to get off the sidewalk and into the park or wherever they want to go," Green said. "Technology like this enables people to live fuller, happier lives."

Green said other companies now offer all-terrain wheelchairs, but ones that are comparable to his $8,000 model start at $17,000.<a name="kevinolson"></a>

Kevin Olson of Chanute demonstrates a rig for his wheelchair that allows him to hunt with his friends.

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"Learning To Live With It" is a new book by Chanute resident Kevin Olson, written using assistive technology. The book is available on for Kindle and in print starting at $6.99.

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Making use of technological advances

At 19, Kevin Olson of Chanute was an All-State basketball player who lived an active life. On July 15, 1991, Olson dove off a dock into a lake he'd long swam in. This time he hit something underwater, paralyzing him from the neck down.

Now, 22 years later, technology is enabling Olson to work and play in ways he couldn't imagine soon after the accident. (View a photo of Kevin shortly before the accident.)

At the expo, he demonstrated a rig for his wheelchair that allows him to hunt with his friends. By operating a joystick with his chin, he can aim a gun or crossbow using a scope outfitted with a mini-LCD screen. Then, by sucking on a tube, he can fire. So far, he's shot three deer and a turkey.

"Before, I was always just a spectator off on the side. Now I'm participating in a sport for the first time since high school," Olson said.

Assistive technology also allows Olson to work. He uses voice-activated software and a device that allows him to type to design websites from home.

Just last week, Olson published an autobiography, "Learning to Live With It." As he writes, "my 3-year-old brother’s response to a bird pooping on my shoulder challenged me to not only accept my paralysis, but really learn to 'live with it.'"

Olson also travels around the state as a motivational speaker.

"If it wasn't for equipment and technology, people out there who are trying to figure out ways that we can do things, our quality of life would be way different," Olson said. "Some of the things just allow us to have fun, and some of them allow us to be gainfully employed. These things open windows, and that gives a person a sense of self worth."

A Boom Lift demonstration from Kansas AgrAbility featuring 41-year-old Terry Wells, a fifth generation Kansas rancher near Gridley who suffered a spinal cord injury in 2005 and uses this tool to keep working:

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