Pakistani student develops innovative walking stick to assist Parkinson’s patients
LONDON: A Pakistani student-entrepreneur whose maternal grandfather was debilitated by Parkinson’s disease has developed an innovative walking stick to improve the lives of patients with the condition.
Neha Shahid Chaudhry, a 24-year-old graduate of the University of the West of England, told Geo News in an exclusive interview that she was inspired to invent the mobility aid—a smart walking stick—after observing with helplessness her late grandfather in Pakistan struggling with Parkinson’s disease.
Neha, a (BSc) Product Design Engineer with a (MSc) Masters in Marketing, and the founder of Walk to Beat, was born in Lahore and gained initial education from the Beaconhouse School. She moved to Saudi Arabia with her engineer father at the age of 14 and studied there till 2009, moving to the UK in 2010 to study at Kingston University, London. She passed her product design technology undergraduate in 2014, Masters from the University of West of England Bristol in 2016 and has ever since been working on the stick.
“My grandfather struggled with the Parkinson’s disease towards the end of his life and we couldn’t do much; he repeatedly suffered falls, rendering him unable to walk and as a result falling and hurting himself,” she said.
The smart walking stick invented has won praises in British media. Her invention detects when a user’s limbs have frozen and they cannot continue walking. As soon as the stick recognises a pause in motion, it starts vibrating to help the patient regain their rhythm and get moving again.
It was towards the end of her undergraduate degree in 2014 when she came up with the idea as part of a project in which she was challenged to devise a product which could solve a ‘real world’ problem.
Neha explained that her invention looks like an ordinary walking stick but has technology added is the plastic handle. The stick has a sensor which can detect when the user has stopped taking steps or ‘shuffling’ steps and it immediately sends signals to the vibrator in the handle which starts vibrating and releases a vibration and rhythm which helps patients to resume walking.
Neha said: “This stick acts as a reminder to the patients when they freeze. It senses when you stop/freeze and turns off automatically when you start walking again. Patients say it encourages them to walk and they learn to pace with it. I designed it to look like a conventional walking stick to ensure it did not draw attention to the patient and their condition. It took me almost four months on research initially at my course, talking to patients, going to care homes and attending Parkinson’s UK drop in sessions. It was all just to ensure that the mobility aid doesn’t look designed for disabled people. This stick is easy to use, aesthetically pleasing and discreet.”
Neha produced a final prototype device at the Robotics Innovation Facility located Bristol Robotics Laboratory where the product is being developed. She has secured nearly £100,000 of investment in the past 2 years to develop the innovative walking stick.
Neha shared that around 127,000 people in the UK have Parkinson’s and over 100 people every day are told they have Parkinson’s in Pakistan.
She told Geo News: “Freezing in Parkinson’s feels like your feet are getting glued to the ground and not being able to step forward. This eventually causes falls. It was interesting to know that any sort of rhythm can help patients to start walking again. Doctors often recommend patients to listen to music as it gives them a continuous rhythm or it could be something as simple as someone standing next to them and saying ‘step-go’.”
She paid tribute to her parents for the achievement. “My parents have been my biggest support and strength. I owe them everything I have achieved today. I feel blessed to have been provided with sources, freedom and encouragement from them at every single point in my journey. This is my 7th year in the UK and I do feel home sick. There are days when I feel like giving up. But then the desire of making a difference and the promises don’t let me. In all honesty it has now come to a point where doing my work makes me feel content as a person, it has given me confidence.”
Currently, Walk to Beat’s Walking Stick is being outsourced for production in the UK. We are negotiating the manufacturing costs and scheduling lead times for production, she said.