Upfront I should declare my interests. I chair the Australian Standards Committee responsible for assistive technologies (ME067), and I am currently Convenor for the ISO (TC173 SC1) working groups responsible for wheelchair testing systems (WG1) and seating (WG11). So yes I get standards.
But I also hear a prevailing counter argument, namely that standards hinder innovation, or they make it hard for end-users to get what they need. This is the reason given by so many I talk to (and I hear my colleagues around the world with similar stories) why they don’t have much time for standards.
There have been studies published that have clearly demonstrated the improved performance of wheelchairs (for instance) that have meet agreed international standards (see Hartridge & Seeger, Assistive Tech, 2000; Fitzgerald, Cooper et al, ArchPhyMedRehab, 2001 etc). At the ISO working group meetings, manufacturers will reflect on what they see happening in the field, vs. what happens in their test labs. And the ISO standards rarely include elements that don’t link to some real life problem or issue. They are set as a minimum benchmark so when an end-user parts with hard earned cash/voucher/entitlement they have some hope that the device will deliver reasonable service.
Does this keep AT more expensive that it could be? Yes it does. I have seen/heard of the results of $50 manual wheelchairs (available for sale) undergoing fatigue testing that simply disintegrate half way through the test. It costs money to build devices with quality materials, to design out pinch points, to ensure that upholstery has a degree of fire resistance. I think that is money well spent though.
Does it stop/hinder innovation? No I don’t think so. Let’s take the case of the iBot3000. This was ground breaking technology. Few people had conceived of any device operating by balancing on two wheels – let alone a wheelchair. Yet the DEKA research & development pushed ahead having demonstrated the concepts. What is particularly impressive though is that they engaged with the standards process. As a result many of the standards were redrafted so that the performance required did NOT force a design restriction – i.e. assuming chairs had to have 3 or more wheels on the ground. It was achieved, and the IBot passes the ISO tests, and more.
A current focus for those in wheelchair standards is the more challenging conditions in less resourced settings (aka the developing world). Some of our tests are not tough enough for them!
Can standards help? Yes. Apart from better product, it also makes it possible for products to work together. The IT/telecommunications sector is full of standards so my mobile phone will work seamlessly in most places, and my computer’s IP port will connect even if I’m in Ireland. Same for AT. Standards aim to make it possible for users to get their chair into a bus, and tied down in a taxi. Communication devices are full of IT standards so they can use peripherals. And the list could go on.
So if we put some effort into good international standards that were readily available (yes I agree the cost of the standards is daft) we could eliminate some trashy and dangerous products – that just don’t do the job. We could then focus on innovating to address issues end users have every day, and perhaps creating even better options to the iBot. I look forward to the day when our standards committee has to wrestle with testing a levitating support frame as a mobility solution!