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Jane Sowerby walking with a ReWalk

Robotic walking

By Jane Sowerby

This is a great opportunity for people to test drive vehicles fitted with hand controls. This event is enjoyable for me as I’m able to chat with a wide variety of people and try to answer any questions/concerns they may have related to disability and mobility. Everyone I spoke to with a Ford car on the Motability scheme had positive reports on their customer service, which is always great to hear. 

Cyclone Mobility was at the Roadshow, they are the sole importer of ReWalk in the UK, which is a product intended to provide a solution for people with lower limb disabilities, using a powered exoskeleton providing user-initiated mobility. I was approached by Cyclone back in May who offered me the opportunity to trial the product; of course I jumped at the chance (perhaps even literally with a bit more practice!). 

The ‘robot suit’ consists of a light, wearable, brace support, which has motors at the knee and ankles, an array of motion sensors and a sophisticated computer system. Basically, body movements are used to trigger and maintain walk patterns, as well as stair-climbing and shifting from sitting to standing. 

I had tried ReWalk once before at their studio in Hull, but was excited to try it out again at the Roadshow. It gave the staff on the Ford stand quite a shock when I walked up and stood next to them! The most common comment was “you’re so tall!” I’m actually 5”10’, but my perspective on life for nine years has always been from a seated position, so I felt like a giant. We had so much interest from wheelchair users and people with other mobility problems. 

Personally, I find it a great rehab tool. I’ve had a lot of problems with my hip so have been unable to use a standing frame. However, because of the level of support the exoskeleton provides, I was able to stand up without putting pressure on my hip. The stretch I get from standing and walking in the suit means that involuntary muscle spasms have calmed down considerably; there are also the psychological element of standing tall again and seeing a slightly different perspective of life. I was concentrating so hard on just standing and taking the first few steps that it didn’t immediately dawn on me what I had done: it was a bit mind blowing. It’s amazing that it can do relatively life-like walking patterns. 

Since then I’ve done more training with Cyclone up in Hull, and last week took my first independent steps without the physio assisting. As my mum lives in Yorkshire, she came over to see me in robotic action. We walked for 1km down a country lane; it just felt like going for a nice Sunday stroll. My mum was understandably quite emotional! 

ReWalk is still in its early stages, but I’m excited to watch the development over the next few years. What an incredible bit of kit. Who knows, one day wheelchairs could be a thing of the past, and we could all be walking around in robot suits. They just need to invent a ‘dance’ mode and I’ll be happy!