All of these designs are meant to help those who currently cannot walk begin to navigate their homes and cities upright. And while they may draw inspiration from those early drawings, the exoskeletons in development today are far more complex. But the focus on the engineering of metal and steel and neural networks has overshadowed the focus on other, equally important forms of engineering, like social and civic.
* * *
The Americans With Disabilities Act, passed 25 years ago this year, contains several rules and regulations surrounding the design of public spaces. Sidewalks, crosswalks, curbs, signals—all are supposed to be designed with the disabled in mind. There should be “curb cuts” at every intersection, for example, to allow a set of wheels to glide down to the street smoothly.
Enforcement of these regulations can be convoluted. State and local jurisdictions are responsible for ensuring that their building codes comply with the ADA. In some places, it is the responsibility of the Federal Highway Administration to make sure that roads and sidewalks are wheelchair-accessible. Much of the actual enforcement of these regulations is complaint-driven, which means a person has to actually contact the U.S. Department of Justice to report a business that is inaccessible.
Recently, things have turned around a bit, says Marilyn Golden, a senior policy analyst at the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. “Here we are at the 25th anniversary of the ADA. They’ve had a long time to do enforcement, and it did take them a long time to get started,” she says. “But in the last 18 months to two years, the [Federal Highway Administration] has been really seriously taking on the enforcement challenge, and getting a bureaucracy that’s used to disregarding these requirements used to implementing them.”
The Department of Justice also has a program called Project Civic Access, which sends inspectors to cities across the country to check on parks, museums, community services, recreation centers, and other buildings for compliance. Since 1999, the project has come to 215 settlement agreements and hit all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.
But still, Golden says, there’s a lot of work to be done. “No matter how many hundreds of cities they do, it’s still only a fraction of the many thousands of cities across the country.”
I talked to Golden while she was at a disability-rights conference. I asked her whether there was any city that was set up well for people with disabilities, and people in wheelchairs specifically. She laughed and turned to a nearby group to ask them what they thought. They couldn’t come up with a single one. Half way through our conversation, someone piped up to say that Denver was “decent.”
* * *
Right now, the only FDA-approved powered exoskeleton is the ReWalk, which was designed by a quadriplegic inventor named Amit Goffer. Goffer himself was paralyzed after an accident on an ATV back in 1997, and since then has been working on designing powered exoskeletons to try and help people like himself walk again. He founded his company, now called ReWalk Robotics, in 2001.