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Disability and accessible prosthetics in developing countries

Disability and accessible prosthetics in developing countries

* 3D printing of prosthetics: a social enterprise in Vietnam

Persons with disabilities are the world’s largest minority, representing 15% of the global population. 80% of this population live in developing countries. We report on a creative approach to the new 3D printing craze-- and its application in personalized prosthetics in Vietnam.

In Vietnam, disabled persons account for 15.3% of the country’s population. The main causes are US-Vietnam war casualties, the lasting effects of Agent Orange (a herbicide warfare that causes mental and physical disability) and land mine accidents. UNICEF-Viet Nam estimates that there are 1.2 million Vietnamese children (out of the 30.5 million Vietnamese under 18) with disabilities. Yet, the WHO reports that less than 5% of amputees have any access to prosthetic products in developing countries.

Significantly, inequality is exacerbated for women and girls with disabilities. The United Nations estimates that 75% of women with disabilities are unemployed and women with disabilities who are employed often earn less than their male counterparts and women without disabilities. In addition, this inequality also exist in education. While the overall literacy rate for persons with disabilities is 3 percent, UNESCO estimates that it is just 1 percent for women and girls with disabilities.

3D Printing prosthetics

Prosthetics are among the most personal pieces of technology someone might ever own - literally being extensions of a person’s body. They have to be customizable to fit the needs of each and every person, and no prosthetic is exactly the same as another. But the standard way of making prosthetics is hugely time consuming, requiring multiple visits to a prosthetist - something that annoying at best - and for people living in rural areas, unfeasible at worst.

 3D printing and 3D modeling then, seem almost like perfect solutions to the prosthetics problem. Groups like e-NABLE and Open Bionics have had considerable success in making prosthetic arms (with various degrees of functionality) - using designs that are tweaked and scaled based on each patient's measurements, and then 3D printed. Sure, their prosthetics might technically just be “research devices,” but they work. Their users can grab objects, hold things steady, and lots of other minor tasks that are often taken for granted, but help immeasurably in the day to day. But the same doesn’t hold for lower body prosthetics. 3D printer plastic might be fine for hands and arms, but for legs and knees, the constant wear and tear - and the consequence of them breaking - filament is too weak to be reliable. 

Penta, a social venture led by Brown students, is trying to combine the customizability of 3D design with the simple, straightforward reliability of traditional prosthetics fitting, to make a socket for prosthetic legs that people can adjust themselves, without having to travel back and forth to prosthetists to make the tiniest of changes. Our designs use cheap, easily moldable thermoplastics and networks of tough mesh-like straps to firmly support the user’s leg while staying breathable, being easy to adjust on a day-to-day basis, as well as being easy to understand and reproduce locally.


The author, Trang Duong, was an intern for Maternova during 2016 and is a co-founder of Penta.

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