UNSW Bragg Student Prize winner

November 27, 2018

Preethika Mathan from Santa Sabina College, NSW, won this year’s Bragg Student Prize for her essay ‘i-Care’. The Bragg Student Prize celebrates excellence in science writing by Australian high school students in years 7 to 10, and is supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.

The two student runners-up were Coco Dwyer and Ruby Mumford from Star of the Sea College, Victoria for their essay ‘Technology is not only all around us, it’s inside us’, and Sienna Ters from Santa Sabina College, NSW for ‘Celebrating 40 years of MRI technology, and why we need it more than ever’.

Dr Andrew Leigh MP won the 2018 Bragg UNSW Press Prize for Science Writing with ‘From bloodletting to placebo surgery’, an excerpt from his book Randomistas. The Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund has sponsored the Bragg Prize for the next three years, which includes the major prize, the student prize and the publication, The Best Australian Science Writing 2018.

Preethika’s essay is reprinted, with permission, below.


Preethika Mathan

Year 7, Santa Sabina College, Strathfield

I live among you but I am nothing like you. My independence is dependent … I am one of the four million people who have special needs. I live in a free country, without freedom. But all is not lost. Technology has shown its potential to revolutionise my life and reshape my tomorrow.

Artificial Intelligence, robotics, assistive equipment and mobile computing can empower the vision, hearing, mobility and mentally impaired. It can enable them to lead independent and productive lives by supplementing and enhancing their abilities.

But there is a keyword – ‘potential’. Sadly, a lack of affordability, business interest and government direction means that the potential for this revolution is currently impossible to realise.

Prices of technologies in the disability sector are often inflated to compensate for the niche market, thereby making it unaffordable and therefore out of reach to people with disabilities. For example, DYNAVOX by Tobii uses Eye-Gaze technology on its tablet device so that people with severe mobility and speech restrictions can manipulate icons using their eyes. However, as this tablet costs as much as US $24 000, only 15 000 were sold worldwide in 2016, despite an estimated 0.5–1 per cent of the world’s population needing such a technology.

Compounding this is the fact that nearly 18 per cent of Australia’s disabled population live in poverty and therefore do not have the financial means to purchase these technologies. Due to these reasons, some of the most motivated and loyal workers are currently prevented from fully participating in the workplace and community, resulting in an opportunity cost to society and our economy.

But affordability is not the only issue. A perceived lack of economic value in this industry deters companies from investing research and development into it. Virtual reality (VR) technology is an example of this. Research, development and production of VR technology for the mainstream market has exploded in the last few years and the appearance of toys such as the Nintendo VR console and venues such as VR gaming centres are testament to this. Yet a similar explosion has not occurred in the disability sector despite its clear benefit in the industry.

VR could potentially help those with learning disabilities such as autism to adapt to new environments and learn the skills necessary in those environments from the comfort of their homes. Similarly, people with physical disabilities can plan their routes based on accessibility. Yet although apps are being developed, there is limited knowledge about these apps among disability support groups.

Up to 50 per cent of people will have some form of disability by the time they reach the age of 65. With life expectancy increasing, this is a growing market and represents an opportunity for companies to increase their market share. Instead of re-releasing the same product with a few additional features (as some mobile device companies do), developing products for the disability sector will not only create a completely new and additional revenue stream but also guarantee growth in the customer base.

The government, in particular, needs to take a more active role in shaping the course of technology in the disability sector. It needs to offer incentives to encourage companies to invest in this area. ‘I-Care’ (Intelligent Care Technologies) isn’t just ethical, it is economical too. It would reduce the cost of care, enable people with disabilities to contribute to the economy and create a new industry and jobs.

Australia is a world leader in biomedical inventions, ranging from sleep correction devices to artificial limbs to biomechanical organs. This was made possible due to the Australian Government’s concerted efforts in the early 2000s to encourage research and development in the biomedical industry through increased funding. This resulted in companies taking an interest in tailoring common technologies of the time to suit products for the medical industry, and today this industry contributes $4 billion to the Australian economy.

There are many specific technologies currently under development across various industries around the world that would be of significant use in the disability sector in Australia, such as exoskeletons for people with limited mobility, smart glasses for the blind and robots with deep learning software for the mentally impaired. It is imperative that the government actively and aggressively supports the consolidation and innovation of these technologies for the disability industry through grants, incentives and even tax breaks.

Technology provides a sustainable and cost-effective means of assisting people with disabilities and Australia must embrace it. This is especially important given that the National Disability Insurance Scheme is expected to soar to over $32 billion by 2030.

Technology has the potential to liberate the lives of people with disabilities. It is time we realise it. Technology is my tomorrow. What’s yours?