Technology redefining the meaning of 'disabled'

The Miami HeraldJune 4, 2009 

Before last month, Erik Weihenmayer, 40, had never seen his young daughter.

But through technology once limited to the imagination of science fiction writers, Weihenmayer, born sight-impaired, now catches glimpses of people and things he previously had only been able to touch or hear.

The technology is called BrainPort, and this weekend it will be one of several jaw-dropping devices on display in Miami at the No Barriers Festival, an international gathering of physically limited athletes, wounded soldiers, disabled kids and hopeful parents, and the scientists and doctors who develop the technology that lets them match the able-bodied step for step.

"I can't tell you how amazing and surreal it has been," Weihenmayer, of Colorado, says of his BrainPort – one of just three prototypes in existence. "This sort of technology is not just ahead of the curve, it's miles ahead of anything we've seen before," said Weihenmayer, president of No Barriers USA, which created the festival.

Weihenmayer, who has been completely blind since age 13, is not seeing in high resolution or color, but the images are clear enough to make out words, reach out and pet the dog or see the silhouette of his 8-year-old daughter Emma and engage in simple pleasures like playing tic-tac-toe or rolling a ball back and forth with her.

Along with the BrainPort, the festival's Innovation Village and symposiums will showcase advanced GPS devices for the blind and "smart" prosthetic limbs that read and react to brain signals like real nerve endings – the latter being the creation of MIT professor and festival co-chair Hugh Herr, who has used them in recent years to resume his rock-climbing hobby. Also on hand: Molly the "amputee" pony.

More than the "wow" factor, experts say, the technology behind the devices is changing the meaning of "disabled" and redefining "able-bodied."

To read the complete article, visit www.miamiherald.com.

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