The Austin Chronicle

Panel Recap: Hack Ability: Open Source Disability Tech

By Rebecca Farr, March 17, 2009, 1:27pm, Picture in Picture

Liz Henry, a wheelchair and crutches user and Web Producer for BlogHer Inc., led Monday's panel Hack Ability: Open Source Disability Tech. Liz needed a projector for her laptop so the audience could see her presentation slides. There was not one in our room 19B, so someone in the audience borrowed one from the “What Makes You Smile” people next door who were raising money for cleft palate surgery for poor kids. Other audience members threw a white tablecloth over the curtain in the back of the room for a projection screen. When the slides were showing backwards, others pitched in to backwards-read their way through the setup menus to get the slides to show in the correct orientation. Hacking the room for the presentation to work drew everyone together and was a powerful illustration for the talk.

Four to eighteen percent of the U.S. population is disabled, depending on how one defines 'disabled'. This does not count institutions. Liz is hoping to help push for an online repository of hacks for the disabled. The simplest such hack are the tennis balls we see on inexpensive walkers. A more complex example of a disability hack, with instructions on the Maker Faire website, is the toilet lift one man made for his mother so she could keep living at home instead of going into a nursing home. For about $100, made of pvc and simple hydraulics, the seat lifts and tilts to stand the person back up when they are ready ( There are many inexpensive and easy hacks, such as gluing a chess piece to a wheelchair button or using a children's trackball instead of a mouse. One woman attached pvc tubes to her bicycle to hold her crutches while she cycled.

This was a moving talk – IRL (In Real Life) is much harder for people with disabilities than for us “walkies.” It was heartening to hear that disabled folks in the audience who had asked engineers for help hacking their hardware were always delighted with the positive response. Liz siad, “Yes! ...because engineers want to solve a problem!” Interestingly, while you can't market or sell a patented design, it is not illegal to make your own. So don't forget to ask engineers you know for help looking up and Making anything you need for accessibility either online or IRL.

Politics and insurance are the two big roadblocks to getting more Disability Tech online. People are afraid of being sued. This is why there are many examples of homemade mobility devices for pets, but not for children or adults with mobility issues.

Here is a list of online resources for hacking wheelchairs, keyboards and other IRL hardware:

Disapedia - Wikihow - Instructables - Wheelchair Junkie - Unptnt Open Source Hardware - Open Source Prosthetics -

And a list of other resources:

Handmade Helps for Disabled Living – book by Stuart E. Grainger Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley The Crucible and Tech Shop – two places in California to go for help hacking your wheelchair or other hardware needs Whirlwind Wheelchair International -

Copyright © 2021 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.