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IDB launches contest to bring innovation to the challenge of disability

How can people with disabilities be pulled out of poverty? Technology adapted to the Latin American reality is part of the solution to integrate these people into society and into the workforce, said Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Professor José Gómez-Marquez in a speech during the launching of an Inter-American Development Bank’s initiative to promote innovative solutions for people with disabilities in the region.

The IDB is launching the initiative “A World of Solutions: Innovations for people with disabilities,” which seeks to develop  new technologies to improve the quality of life  of people with disabilities and their inclusion to the educational system and the labor market.

The initiative has earmarked up to $50,000 in competitively awarded and multisectoral funds to finance pilot projects that further the inclusion of people with disabilities. The initiative consists of a proposals contest and a problems-and-solutions contest.

To this end, MIT experts said low-cost technology adapted to Latin American and Caribbean countries is key to integrate people with disabilities. Failure to integrate disabled individuals impacts society as a whole, not just the 10 percent of people with some form of disability, which represents 50 million people.

The time a person can spend working and producing is often reduced and used to look after a disabled relative. This translates into a double blow to the economy as neither the disabled person nor the caring relative can work. This leads to a cycle of poverty by hindering access to the job market and curtailing family-income generation.
Families with a disabled member are twice as likely to live in a situation of poverty. For example, a family with a disabled member will have fewer income opportunities and greater medical expenses, which translate into even less income for basic food, for the education of other members of the family, and for recreational activities.

Professor Gómez-Marquez, who heads the D-Lab: Salud (Health) —a course where technologies for global health are designed—explained that a conventional wheelchair can be a luxury for those living in poverty as repair and maintenance are expensive and can even be beyond the reach of those living in a limited-resource environment. In such cases, the proposal consists of developing and deploying technologies suitable for Latin America and the Caribbean. "We seek to co-create technologies with the local populations, since innovation comes from the incorporation of other people's ideas," he said.

For example D-Lab: Salud students have designed an "all-terrain" wheelchair for dirt roads, consisting of a seat on bicycle wheels and sticks—materials that are easy to find and easy to replace or repair locally. The unit is equipped with levers that help the rider move along and push through all types of terrain without the need of a more expensive electric wheelchair. Using levers is more efficient than pushing a conventional wheelchair's wheels.
The innovations do not necessarily refer to new inventions, but to existing innovations and technologies that are not available in Latin America and the Caribbean.

"We want to hear their ideas and receive their proposals, and we want the people with disabilities and their organizations to be the ones voting on which are the most relevant problems in Latin America", said Flora Painter, chief of the IDB's Science and Technology Division. "The contests will be bridges linking the technology and innovation world with the needs of people with disabilities. "

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