Ingenious inventions for the disabled

By MEREDITH PRICE LEVITT
June 25, 2009 14:30

MILBAT harnesses the hi-tech expertise of its 300 volunteers to make devices for the disabled and elderly as widely available as possible.




Ingenious inventions for the disabled

wheelchair learnin 88 248. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Tucked away in a dilapidated, one-story building in the sprawling Sheba Hospital complex at Tel Hashomer, the headquarters of the nonprofit MILBAT organization are small and unassuming - especially considering the number of innovative products it churns out every year. Unlike companies who create, design and manufacture new products with the specific goal of making a profit, MILBAT has a different objective: to better the lives of physically and mentally disabled people and the elderly. Yael Shaked-Bregman, one of the relatively few salaried employees, greets me in the spacious entrance to tour the facility. A tall blonde with a smile that lights up her entire face, she shares her personal experiences over the last 14 years at MILBAT with the pride and passion of a dedicated professional who fully believes in the benefits of her work. One of about 20 therapists on staff, she arrived at the organization as a student of occupational therapy and never left. As we tour several rooms brimming with prototypes and sample products, it is clear that this is no ordinary organization. A wooden baby crib for mothers in wheelchairs has doors that open to the side instead of up; special computer keyboards are fitted with a metal grate to allow people with tremors to type; a remote control car for disabled children has giant plastic buttons; and an electric organ specially designed for the handicapped is fitted with large keys and colorful, round knobs so that it can be used as both a musical instrument and a therapeutic device. "If a solution to a problem already exists on the market, then we don't make it, but if someone has a special request for something that isn't already out there, we do our best to develop it for his unique needs," she says. One good example is a long lighter with a round piece of metal affixed at one end. "We made this for an elderly woman in Jerusalem who is visually impaired but wanted to continue to light the Shabbat candles herself," Shaked-Bregman says, showing me how the metal piece is designed to fit over the candle. "This way she doesn't have to see the candles to light them. She can feel them instead." BEYOND THE innovative products - of which there are hundreds - the structure of the organization itself is also unconventional. "As far as I know, no other NGO works the way we do," explains Shaked-Bregman. Not only does MILBAT conceptualize, design and produce innovative products for the disabled of all ages and the elderly, it also provides free, unbiased information about what is already available on the market and helps educate people about their options through free consultations and seminars. Volunteers and staff members also maintain a large on-line database of existing products called www.azarim.org.il, the first of its kind in the Hebrew language. It is also currently being translated into Arabic. To date, the Hebrew site has information on 11,570 assistive devices, including pictures, links to manufacturers' and distributors' Web sites and other details. "We do not receive a commission to promote specific products, so we can provide people with unbiased information," Shaked-Bregman says as we walk into a small hallway lined with wheelchairs in various shapes and sizes. A special electronic sensor helps test the wheelchair to be sure the pressure is evenly distributed and won't cause sores - one of the most prevalent causes of infection. "Many people in wheelchairs cannot tell if they are sitting properly. If they come here or to one of our centers around the country, we can use this electronic sensor to help them decide which one suits them best." In a far room, volunteers are working at a row of computers on various projects. About 220 of the more than 300 volunteers use their knowledge of engineering, electronics, health care and hi-tech to develop the unique products that solve an individual's functionality problem. According to Shaked-Bregman, about one-third of the volunteers are themselves disabled, which gives them the unique ability to better understand the needs of others. Next to the small kitchenette, shelves lining the wall are filled with games. Among them are backgammon boards with large pieces that do not slide and a variety of plastic card holders so that people who only have the use of one hand can play cards without having to use their mouths. In an adjacent room, she shows me a small red cushion attached to a voice-activated phone for a woman who can only move her head. "The voice-activated phone already exists on the market and it's great," she says, pointing to the plastic phone with a large number pad. "The problem is that you have to push a small button before you can use it, and she couldn't do that with her head so the engineers opened up the phone and attached this cushion. It fits behind her head and when she pushes it, it activates the phone so she can answer calls and dial numbers by herself now." OCCASIONALLY, THERE are requests that cannot be solved, such as numerous little girls with disabilities who request a device that will help them put their hair in a ponytail with only one hand. MILBAT did, however, find a solution for a Polish woman who only had the use of one hand but was intent on being able to fold her socks together properly. One of the volunteers demonstrates how the rounded glass globe they designed for her works with a pair of mismatched socks. First she puts one of the socks on the globe and then uses her one free hand to fit the other one on top of it, pulling them off together. "There's one brown and one blue, but you can see that they fit together in a nice, neat knot," she says. Headed today by Dr. Yigal Ben-Shalom, the retired director of the National Insurance Institute, MILBAT was originally established in 1981 by Daniel Barak, an engineer from the Weizmann Institute, and the late Prof. Rafi Rozin, who established and headed the rehabilitation unit at Sheba Hospital. Through his work with war veterans and the disabled, Rozin realized that no information or aid existed here to help people so he decided to create one that would increase independence and improve the quality of life. The organization has expanded its range of services over the years and plans to continue growing and striving to be more financially self-reliant through the sale of patents, games and specialized products. "If a family cannot afford something, we give it to them," says Shaked-Bregman. "But for those who can pay, we sell them for what it costs us to produce and the money goes back into the organization." In 2008, MILBAT staff members, including occupational, speech and physiotherapists, provided personal counseling to 9,700 people who requested help. The organization directly assisted more than 34,000 people and another 212,240 additional people were helped by the information on the Azarim Web site. Despite the large numbers, Yael insists that MILBAT is always looking for ways to spread the word about the organization so that more people with special needs will turn to it. "We have a lot of wonderful volunteers and resources and we want people to come to us with their requests. We're here to share our knowledge and help find solutions." www.milbat.org


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