Wizzybugs A Go Go: Robotics Engineer Praminda Caleb-Solly on her D4D project Catch Me If You Can

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An expert in designing practical, technical solutions for disabled people, Caleb-Solly is the theme leader for assisted living at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory at the University of the West of England. Natasha Sutton-Williams spoke to her about D4D project ‘Catch Me If You Can’.

Still image of a young disabled child, sitting in a child's electric wheelchair

The Wizzybug

Catch Me If You Can explores how technological interventions can positively impact on the lives of very young disabled children. Through practical and investigative research, Caleb-Solly and her team have analysed how technology can support children. Research has gone into understanding disabled childrens’ experience of play, and how they can enhance their experience of social belonging in communities.

“In 2016 when we first started to formulate our D4D project, I was working for a not-for-profit enterprise called Designability who make assistive products for disabled people,” says Caleb-Solly. “One of their products is called a Wizzybug, which is an innovative mobility device for early years children. Essentially, it’s a fun electric wheelchair for kids! In the UK, kids under five don’t get access to wheelchairs, so we designed one. It’s available as part of a loan scheme, and it’s actually free to parents. Going into the D4D project, I could see an opportunity for the children and families who use the Wizzybug to participate in our study so we could better understand how the Wizzybug was changing their experience of day-to-day life.”

From an engineering perspective, Caleb-Solly wanted to find out if they could quantitatively measure the impact of a child having access to a Wizzybug.

“We settled on using a smart phone with a specially created app attached to the Wizzybug that would record the sensor data on the smart phone, such as the accelerometer app. This recorded how much the Wizzybug was being used, and when and where it was being used. We were able to do things like generate the traces of a child playing in a playground. You can see that previously when the parent is pushing the child in a wheelchair they aren’t moving around very much. But when the child has the freedom and autonomy to be in the Wizzybug, they are zooming around all over the place! That brought tears to my eyes when we looked at the data.”

The Wizzybug opens up opportunities for children with mobility impairments to have as much agency as any other child their age. Additionally, the Wizzybug’s toy car design is so universally appealing all children love them.

“I design for people with disabilities, and I am aware that quite often mobility devices are designed using grey plastic,” says Caleb-Solly. “This can create a stigma in using and owning the technology. The Designability Wizzybug is unique in its design. As engineers and designers, we think about the aesthetics of technology and how it impacts on how comfortable people feel using the technology, how they feel integrating with others, and how to make other people feel comfortable in the same way.”

There isn’t a huge amount of data on the intersection between very young disabled children, their access needs, and the tools that can provide them independence. That is why the Catch Me If You Can work stream in D4D is so exciting.

“This project is so useful in communicating to policy makers the difference the Wizzybug makes,” states Caleb-Solly. “During those early years, having the freedom to move around like any other child is so important to all their development stages, including their speech and understanding of their environment. It just changes things for them, rather than being stuck in one spot, and getting pushed around.”

Designability has 519 Wizzybugs on its fleet. 973 families have been helped through the loan scheme and 99.9% would recommend the loan scheme to family and friends. It’s a wonder the government aren’t funding this scheme, especially as it is not just beneficial for the child, but also for the parents.

“One of the things we set out to investigate is how the boundaries of the child and the parent change. We don’t just mean physical boundaries but emotional boundaries, meaning the child has the confidence to access these spaces. One example of this was a moment that one of the parents on the project shared with us – mum was cooking in the kitchen. Her child had become more confident using the Wizzybug. He came over to her to find out what she was doing. That had never happened before. He hadn’t been able to move himself to come and see what his mum was doing and participate. It’s little things like that which we might take for granted but make all the difference not just to the child but to the parents. We’ve been able to capture that data as well. For parents, just the idea that they know that their child can actually be naughty, like other small children are expected to be, has been amazing.”

Caleb-Solly and her team haven’t just been capturing data from the Wizzybug itself. The children have been able to get creatively involved in the study, and have provided unique insights into their lived experience.

“Quite a few of the children have communications issues and impairments as a result of their disability. We gave them cameras that look like toys so they could take their own photos. They take them from their perspective of life from the Wizzybug. They’ve taken photos of all kinds of things they found significant, like taking snaps during their check up at a clinic, at the park, when they’re with their friends and parents at the supermarket. It’s been a really interesting way we’ve been able to get them to contribute to the study.”

Of course, there are ethical dilemmas when collecting people’s data, especially when it’s focussed on young children experiences.

“Ethical challenges arise in the type of data we can collect and report. We got ethics approval for the research and the parents gave consent to collect the data for us. We tried to make it as easy as possible for parents, knowing how busy and hectic their lives are likely to be. We made a little case that they could slip the smart phone which ran data collection app into on the Wizzybug when they wanted to start the data collection. This meant the parents could decide when they would record the data. We advised them that the moment the child wakes up and starts to use the Wizzybug, pop in the phone. Then at night when they’re going to bed, take it out. We wanted them to retain their privacy, so there was no video data and no voice recording.”

Caleb-Solly spends her working life immersed in the world of robotics. One of the latest advances in this industry is the development of driverless cars. This controversial topic divides public opinion, however Caleb-Solly is an advocate for their use, especially when it comes to positively benefiting disabled people.

“I was working on a project called Flourish that looked at the functionality and adaptive interfaces needed by older adults with age-related impairments to use driverless cars. Access to mobility is a really important part of being independent. For somebody who is wary of engaging with this technology, it is about going back to them and saying, ‘What are your aspirations? What do you want to do?’ They might say, ‘I want to meet with my friends. I want to go to the park. I want to pick up my grandchildren from school.’ If this technology opens doors to help people realise their ambitions or aspirations – things that would make their life meaningful – then that is the way to approach this technology, especially when it can enable you to do the things that bring you joy.”

So what is the future of these burgeoning technologies, and how do we get the general public to practically engage with their pros and cons?

“As engineers we sometimes expect a new technology to just become accepted,” says Caleb-Solly. “But I think there is a period where everybody has to get used to it. That period of ‘normalisation’ is so important. Sometimes we simply react to that initial introduction phase when everyone is still finding their feet and figuring out how it can be used. You might see a new gadget and become interested in it, but you’re a bit unsure; you don’t know whether to approach it or not. I think we need to do a better job of introducing people to technology in a way that they can see what it can do for them, engage with any ethical concerns, and give them, and ourselves, time to reflect, and really understand what it offers.”

D4D is an Arts and Humanities Research Council ‘Connected Communities’ funded research programme. D4D has been investigating the evolving ways in which we as disabled people express, perform, experience and practise ‘community’.

For more information on Praminda Caleb-Solly’s project stream Catch Me If You Can, please visit the project page on the D4D website.