Wounded Warriors

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As of December 2012, VA hospitals and clinics had treated over 900,000 veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the latest VA statistics. This included 50,000 veterans classified as polytrauma patients, among whom were 1,600 patients with moderate to severe brain injuries, 1,400 amputees and 900 severe burn victims.

One way medical professionals are helping soldiers deal with these devastating injuries is by applying emerging technologies. Here are a few ways technology is helping make life easier for veterans with missing limbs, limited mobility, and hearing and sight impairments.

Replacing Lost Limbs

In July, Mobius Bionics announced the release of Life Under Kinetic Evolution (LUKE), a prosthetic limb modeled on Luke Skywalker’s replacement hand in "The Empire Strikes Back." LUKE is the outgrowth of an effort DARPA began in 2006 to develop prosthetic solutions for injured soldiers. It uses programmed sensors and grips to replicate the actions of a human arm. It can be attached at the shoulder, mid upper arm or mid forearm, and each joint can work independently. It can be used to perform tasks such as holding glasses, lifting bags of groceries and reaching to scratch their back. LUKE is the first device to be approved by the FDA under the agency’s new integrated prosthetic arm category. It will be commercially available in late 2016.

Another Star Wars-inspired technology, Anaken, uses a mobile phone app to help fit amputees for prostheses. Developed by Amman-based startup Project X to help refugees injured in the Syrian civil war, the app uses 3-D image modeling to ensure that prosthetic devices fit correctly.

Overcoming Limited Mobility

Corporal Joshua Burch is able to walk again thanks to a battery-powered exoskeleton developed by VA researchers for rehabilitation therapy. Burch is paralyzed from the chest down due to a fracture of his seventh cervical vertebra sustained in an accident in Guam. After initially being unable to move his limbs, Burch can now stand and walk on crutches with support from the exoskeleton.

Since 2011, the Veterans Health Administration has been developing another wearable robotic exoskeleton, called the ReWalk, that uses bionic-powered hip and knee motions to support standing, walking, turning and, in the near future, climbing and descending stairs. The ReWalk is the first such exoskeleton to receive FDA approval for rehabilitative and personal use. At least 13 companies are in the exoskeleton market, including Lockheed Martin, Hyundai and Panasonic.

The Defense Department’s Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program (CAP) provides information on other resources to help individuals with limited mobility more easily use computers and electronic technology. CAP’s website includes information on monitor risers and arms, document holders, alternate keyboard and mouse input devices, speech recognition input devices and lumbar support chair enhancements.

Dealing With Deafness

CAP’s site also provides information on technology designed to assist those with hearing disabilities. One of the most important innovations has been the application of technology to improve the efficiency of communications relay services. Today’s relay options have expanded beyond traditional TTY to include text and video relay services, along with other options detailed on the National Association for the Deaf’s website.

Meanwhile, MotionSavvy has introduced UNI, a tablet that recognizes sign language gestures for sign-to-speech translation as well as speech-to-text recognition for receiving communication. Gallaudet University provides detailed information and resources on other assistive technologies for the deaf and hard of hearing, including FM systems that enhance hearing, visual alert notification devices, captioning for TV and YouTube broadcasts, and real-time transcription systems.

Managing Visual Impairment

BrailleWorks identifies several of the best apps for mobile device users who are visually impaired. TapTapSee lets users double-tap their screen to take a photo of anything at any angle and hear a description of the object read aloud. The KNFB Reader app converts text to speech, and LookTel Money Reader enables users to identify and count currency. The BeMyEyes social app allows them to connect with sighted users who can help identify objects displayed through live video chat.

In addition to apps, mobile devices are becoming more accessible for the visually impaired. For instance, the Samsung Galaxy S7 includes a Voice Assistant feature that reads text aloud and lets users input special gestures, such as shaking to continue reading.