Tools for living | Action Medical Research

Touching Lives - March 2005

Tools for living

Many people know of Professor Heinz Wolff. Forever associated with the immensely popular BBC TV programme ‘The Great Egg Race’, Heinz is the archetypal eccentric professor. Heinz is also famous for his groundbreaking work done at the Brunel Institute for Bioengineering. And Touching Lives readers will be familiar with Heinz for his regular ‘Jargon busters’ column.

What you may not know is that Professor Wolff founded the Institute of Bioengineering in 1983 with a capital grant of £25,000 from Action Medical Research. Follow-up grants from the Charity of £125,000, and £293,171 in 1988 allowed Heinz’ team at the Institute to develop their ‘Tools for Living’ programme — which still exists today.

Heinz defines Tools for Living as “the use of technology to improve the quality of life of elderly and disabled people.”

“You can describe a disabled person in one of two ways,” he says.”You can either say that there is something physiologically wrong with them — that they only have one leg, or don’t hear very well for example. Or you can say that lots of us can’t do things in the ordinary world, and that disabled people just aren’t being given the right toolkit.”

Progressive thinking

“Disability in my definition is that you can’t do what you want to do. Say you’re driving along the road and you have a puncture.You cannot go any further so you’re effectively disabled from doing what you want to do. If you’re not strong enough to lift your car to change the tyre, then you need a tool that will amplify your strength — a jack. With a jack you can lift the car, but then you need to be able to undo the wheelnuts. You find that your fingers aren’t strong enough. So you need a spanner. From being in a disabled position, ten minutes later you find yourself — with the right tools — enabled to continue your journey.”

This seemingly simple way of looking at the world was very forward thinking at the time. The ‘medical model’ of disability — that saw disability as a fault in the person, and not a fault of the environment or society in which the person had to live — was dominant.

With the changing demographics of an ageing population, and the coming of a new, more progressive way of thinking about disability, the time for Tools for Living was right — and Action Medical Research was there to fund it.

“They were very exciting times,” Heinz confirms. “We worked in a portacabin — that was all Brunel University had to house us. We needed staff who weren’t claustrophobic as there wasn’t much room! We had to get under the portacabin ourselves from time to time to fix leaking pipes and so on.We were living by the skin of our teeth, and working very hard.”

Successful inventing

The team went on to invent a succession of devices to help disabled and elderly people with day-to-day living. From portable bidets, to equipment that let carers single-handedly lift someone who has fallen over. From easy-to-use plug switches to handy jar-openers; aids to enable people to reach high windows, and the ‘auto-sip’ drinking device that allowed people who couldn’t lift a cup to their mouth to drink at the touch of a button.The list of inventions goes on and on, limited only by the imagination and perseverance of the ingenious team Heinz led at Brunel.

^As technology advanced, so the Tools for Living programme had more possibilities opened up to it.^ Recent inventions demonstrate this.

“‘Millennium Homes’ is a kit which you can put into any house. It notices what you are doing, and talks to you,” Heinz says. “It will ring your phone to tell you that you’ve just gone to bed but left the backdoor open. Or it knows that you haven’t been opening the fridge door recently, so starts to wonder whether you’ve been eating properly.There are thousands of contingencies of this nature. If you don’t resolve the issue the machine will ring to get help.The system is intended for people with learning difficulties who are living independently.”

Hearts and minds

“We believe we’ve been a major force in changing hearts and minds about how disabled people are regarded — that you should actually do something to make their environment more accommodating. Let’s give people the righttoolkit!” Heinz says.

Tools for Living transformed the quality of life of disabled and elderly people, and often the quality of life of the person’s carer — a group whose needs are often overlooked.

Heinz continues to work “rather more than full time” as he puts it. “It keeps me alive,” says the 77-year old, “and because I’m interested, it’s something I enjoy.

“I have fond affection for Action Medical Research. I like to describe the Charity as a ‘kaleidoscope’ because of all the varied and wonderful research it funds, and still appreciate the role it played in getting the Institute off the ground.”

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