The Future of Mobility is Fast Approaching – and Changing Lives for the Better By Matthew Reeve

In November of last year, a short video from the Mayo Clinic and UCLA was broadcast on news sites across the world and went viral on social media.

The clip showed Jered Chinnock, a young man who had been completely paralysed from the waist down following a snowmobile accident in 2013, walking. Using a front-wheeled walking frame and occasionally aided by physical therapy trainers, a paralyzed man took steps covering a distance of 100 metres. 

This was not one of those miraculous, doctors-can’t-explain-it, inspirational stories where someone living with paralysis suddenly recovers the ability to walk just before  their wedding or college graduation. It was the culmination of years of research and the result of a relatively new approach to treating spinal cord injuries: the application of technology. Jered voluntarily took steps thanks to a small device called an epidural stimulator that was implanted on the base of his spine. Whilst recovery from spinal cord injury by an electronic device might sound like a plot point from a science fiction film, this breakthrough is real and represents a host of very promising, tangible near-term solutions for many people living with both complete and incomplete paralysis. 

Over the past five years, there has been a cascade of new research that reflects a seismic shift across the field of spinal cord research, enabling a prospective return to independence and improved health for people living with paralysis. A number of treatments and therapies are rapidly moving from research labs to end users that all integrate some aspect of sophisticated technology and thus unlocking a world of unforeseen possibilities. 

Today, we are only scratching the surface of the power and potential of tech-driven solutions that can enhance everyday life for individuals living with paralysis. People are already able to benefit from a variety of innovations to move around their home, monitor and control their health, expand and increase their professional skills and navigate their everyday world. 

This is one of the many reasons I was so pleased to participate in the Mobility Unlimited Challenge, which aims to develop smarter assistive technology devices geared towards achieving greater mobility and improving the quality of life for people living with paralysis.

Judging the entrants was a highly rewarding experience and a fascinating glimpse into the innovative thinking and work being carried out all across the world. As a jury member, it was encouraging and inspiring to meet with teams from dozens of countries eager to deconstruct the needs of individuals suffering from paralysis and innovating devices that will enable people to reclaim their independence, and improve inclusion in the community and the workplace. To see some of the world’s greatest minds coming together to solve something that for generations  was deemed unsolvable, has been a very fortunate privilege.

The finalists were selected from the US, UK, Italy and Japan and offer a variety of approaches to actually solve the problems that people living with paralysis face on a daily basis -- from light-weight exoskeletons to smart wheelchairs, and alternative transport solutions. 

My father, Christopher Reeve, would have been thrilled by the Mobility Unlimited Challenge and other similar initiatives undertaken collectively by teams, as well as the home inventor around the world. He was always a huge admirer of people who defied conventional wisdom, pushed the boundaries, and pioneered innovation into unknown territory. Otherwise, how is progress made? 

When he was injured, he found himself in a unique position to bring a voice to an entire community of people who didn’t previously have one. It wasn’t a position he chose, but he embraced it. He dared to challenge the notion that a spinal cord injury meant a lifetime of immobility and as the intersection of spinal cord research and technology continues to develop and grow, across various countries and spectrums. As we are on the cusp of a new era, we have to thank the forward-thinking people who are applying technology to realize mobility inclusion, and rapidly making it a reality.   

Matthew Reeve is a is a screenwriter and filmmaker, and a director of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. He serves as a judge for Mobility Unlimited Challenge, which announced its five finalists at CES Las Vegas 2019 in January. Each of the five teams selected have received $500,000 from the Toyota Mobility Foundation to enhance and further refine their concepts. The winning team will be awarded a $1M prize in Tokyo in 2020.