CYBATHLON: Pushing the Limits for a World without Barriers

28th November 2022
Cybathlon 2016, Kloten. Team RT-Movers JPN  | © ETH Zürich/Alessandro Della Bella

Cybathlon 2016, Kloten. Team RT-Movers JPN

ETH Zürich/Alessandro Della Bella

People with disabilities face a variety of challenges in their daily lives leading to different types of mental and physical barriers. Assistive technologies can help them overcome many such barriers. However, there are still barriers/obstacles in accessing these technologies. CYBATHLON creates a platform that bridges the gap between people with disabilities and the research and development teams involved in designing and producing assistive technologies by bringing them together for CYBATHLON competitions and challenges to overcome the existing barriers.

Challenges and obstacles faced by people with disabilities in their daily lives.

People with disabilities face many challenges in their daily lives, which could be concerned with physical, communicational, attitudinal, programmatic, transportation, and societal barriers in their surroundings. More specifically, what are these barriers? The World Health Organization (WHO) describes these barriers as being more than just physical obstacles and defines these barriers as: “Factors in a person’s environment that, through their absence or presence, limit functioning and create disability.”

More concretely, these barriers could include some of the following aspects:

  •  Inaccessibility of a physical environment
  • Insufficiency of relevant assistive technologies
  • Negative attitude of society towards disability and people with disabilities
  • Services, systems and policies that are either nonexistent, partially existent or that hinder the involvement of people with disabilities in all areas of life

The biggest barrier that people with disability encounter is the way our society disables them. Discrimination, stigma and stereotyping are all causing challenges for people with disability that have resulted in emotional stress, isolation, unemployment, and inadequate job quality.

The following efforts may help people with disabilities overcome challenges and to breaking barriers:

  • Implementing the process of equal and fair treatment in social and organisational setups
  • Making products, communications and the physical environment more accessible and usable
  • Creating and modifying assistive technologies to enable a person with a disability to use them to the maximum extent possible
  • Overcoming the false belief, stigmas or stereotypes about people with disabilities

People with disabilities and assistive technologies.

Assistive technologies (ATs) can support people with disabilities in improving their functional capabilities. Moreover, ATs to some extent can enable people with disabilities to be an integral part of society, gain employment opportunities and as a result, make them independent. But the ATs are not easily available to those most in need. One of the biggest barriers to access to ATs is affordability which is followed by a lack of user engagement in the process of designing and developing ATs, awareness, support and availability of devices. Moreover, the inclusion of people with disabilities into everyday activities involves practices and policies designed to identify and remove barriers that hamper an individual’s ability to have full participation in society. Thus, it is of high importance that the users are part of the process of designing and developing the technologies that they are going to use in their everyday lives.

CYBATHLON connects society, research and development and people with disabilities in an emotional, positive, and unique way.

Addressing the challenges and removing the barriers related to inclusivity does not only matter to people with disabilities. The problems of discrimination, stigma and stereotyping require a fundamental change in attitude and organisation that permeates society. That is where CYBATHLON comes in to bridge the gaps and push the boundaries. CYBATHLON not only attempts to mitigate the barriers between people with disabilities and the research and development teams involved in designing and developing ATs but paves the way to change the attitude and perceptions of the general society towards people with disabilities. CYBATHLON acts as a platform that challenges teams from all over the world to develop assistive technologies suitable for everyday use with and for people with disabilities. CYBATHLON achieves this fundamental aim by organising international competitions, challenges and events, in which teams consisting of technology developers from universities, private companies or NGOs and a person with disabilities (pilot) tackle various everyday tasks and chores with their latest assistive technologies. The technology developers and the pilots usually work in unison for years to prepare for these competitions. One of the team managers, Luca Tonin says, "For five years now, I have been working with our pilot Francesco. During this time, we have become close friends and he is strongly involved in our development,". His team from the Intelligent Autonomous System (IAS) laboratory at the University of Padova has been developing their BCI technology since 2014 - 2015 and has been part of the CYBATHLON from the beginning.

CYBATHLON has thus far organised many competitions and events including two Editions in 2016 and 2020, and several challenges and series since its inception in 2013. The third Edition is set to take place in October 2024. The competition now is comprised of eight different disciplines: Brain-Computer Interface Race, Functional Electrical Stimulation Bike Race, Arm Prosthesis Race, Leg Prosthesis Race, Exoskeleton Race, Wheelchair Race, the Vision Assistance Race, and the Assistance Robot Race.

These events bring together more than 100 teams participating in different disciplines from about 30 countries. Having participated in CYBATHLON events, the development teams have shown which obstacles people with disabilities face in their day-to-day lives and how technology can contribute to overcoming these barriers. “The CYBATHLON gives hope and confidence to people with disabilities by showing what modern assistive technologies can do” that is what Ms. Corine Mauch the City President of Zürich, Switzerland has to say. Through Challenges, Competitions and Symposiums, CYBATHLON cultivates dialogue and nurtures relationships between society, people with disabilities and developers of assistive technologies to promote inclusivity in all aspects of life. As Professor Joël Mesot, who is the President of ETH Zürich, emphasizes, “universities address global challenges. ETH does that with education, research, technology transfer and outreach. The CYBATHLON brings all these points together.” Mr. Rüdinger Böhm lost both of his legs one day before his 27th birthday during a fatal car crash. After a long recovery period, he made his way back into a new life and became one of the most successful experts in change management. Today, Mr. Böhm is a motivational speaker, mental coach and author. He says, “Out of the box! Breaking the limits in people’s minds – this is what I stand for and this is what the CYBATHLON shows in such a wonderful way!”

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