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Learning to walk again by Sophie Morgan

Today, Sophie Morgan is known as a TV presenter, writer, producer and a powerful disability advocate, especially in the travel sector. Paralysed in a car crash as a teenager, she explained to us what it was like taking her first steps 10 years later.

Walking with a robotic exoskeleton

Every night, almost without fail, I dream that I am walking. When I was in intensive care following the car crash that left me paralysed, these dreams were more like nightmares, torturing me, reminding me of what I had just lost. As the years went by the dreams became less and less painful and now I can honestly say that now they are magical, fantastical and I don’t awake from them feeling sad but moreover refreshed and happy that, even if only in my head, I have just had a walk!

Given that I believed this fantasy could never be a reality, you would understand my complete and utter surprise when I was invited to trial a device that would actually make the dream come true. Yes, I was invited to walk again, with the help of a robot.

A robotic exoskeleton had been created which enables people like me, with paralysis or other mobility issues, to walk. But not just walk. The robot, known as Rex, (Robotic Exoskeleton) can sit, stand, walk forward, backwards, shuffle, go up stairs and slopes and even dance - if you know how! In short, it is the most incredible invention I could have ever imagined. Fantasy had finally met reality!

The power of technology

At first glance, Rex really is a very foreign looking object, literally, because you will have never have seen anything like it! Perhaps picture Wallace & Gromit’s The Wrong Trousers, but black, sleek, modern, and made of carbon fibre, not plasticine! When I first met it, in May of 2012, I was spellbound, fascinated by the design and mechanics of a machine which would enable me to stand up and walk. Stand up and WALK.

Surely it should be larger? Look safer? Be less sexy looking for something so technical? I noticed I was nervous, and skeptical of how the experience would be. After all, it had 18 years of walking, and 10 years of dreaming to contend with. I wasn’t going to be easily impressed.


First steps

So, with some trepidation and help from some very lovely technicians fresh from New Zealand where it is made, I transferred across into the seated robot. I was then strapped in as my chair was removed from view.

My family and friends who had come along to watch, pointed camera phones in my direction and smiled excitedly.  After one final check that everything was in place, I was invited to scroll through the options on a screen on the right handle and select ‘stand’. Now, for someone who has been using a wheelchair for just over 10 years this small gesture cannot be underestimated. To be able to choose to ‘stand’, I was completely lost for words. But then I stood. And then I walked.

I honestly can say as I look back at the video of the experience, that I was dumbfounded. But as I tootled around in it, walking across the room to hug my friends and family, I had the feeling that somehow my life would never be the same again. And it wasn’t.

A new beginning

The following November I was flown out to Auckland where I met the extraordinary team of technicians and Rex’s creators Richard and Robbie and at the end of a week of using the robot and getting fully independent in it, I was asked to become an ambassador, to help them in their task of taking their technology to the world. As you can probably guess, it didn’t take long to say yes, and so I flew back to London to await the arrival of my own personal device and the beginning of a life in which I could no longer say I can’t walk.

My Rex landed in the UK and (with the exemption of a week away learning to ski!) I used it every single day. It transformed my everyday life, not only from a practical point of view (I can now reach the top cupboards and cook properly!) but also my well being. The effect that standing has on the body is extremely important.

Wellbeing benefits of walking

Amongst a list of many benefits, standing puts weight through the bones, improving bone density. It allows the organs to realign correctly, helping digestion and decreasing stagnation which can lead to urine infections and other complications.

Walking also has multiple benefits - stretching the hips and joints and helping blood circulation. After Rex arrived, I noticed a huge physiological change; my spasms decreased, my back pain went, I slept better and my incontinence practically stopped. In addition to this I felt happier, I felt whole, I ultimately felt less disabled.

Disability and the future

Someone said to me later that they didn’t see me as disabled, only paralysed. I really think that is true, as I feel that with the right equipment, there is no reason for why I or anyone else should be called disabled. My wheelchair allows me to get around, my medication allows me to remain healthy and my attitude helps me to live my life. All that gets in my way, effectively disables me, are the physical and attitudinal barriers that society has built against the disabled. But with the advent of technology like Rex, why on earth am I disabled? I am enabled. Thanks to Rex, today I can say that despite being paralysed, I am able to walk, to stand, to hug my friends, to talk to people eye to eye, to help my body remain healthy and well and to live my dreams.

It is overwhelming to think about where this technology could go next. Words like thought control come to mind, as do quicker, lighter, faster, and in my lifetime I may well look back at this first model and laugh much like my parent’s generation laugh at the first mobile phones. And, like mobile phones, it will augment human reality and ability. Robots will help not only the physically impaired, but in time, help everyone to be stronger, faster, safer and possibly even better. The time has come for the super-fiction to become ‘super-fact’ and dreams to become reality. I cannot wait to see where it takes me next…

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Article written in 2014.

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