Technology triggered by eye movements is helping re-establish an Emirati man’s family bonds after he was cut off from the world because of locked-in syndrome. Trapped after a bleed in the brain four years ago, former Dubai engineer Badr Salim Abdalla Al Ali has a neurological disorder which paralyses voluntary muscles except for the eyes. It has isolated him from his family.
A rehabilitation programme at Amana Healthcare in Khalifa City, Abu Dhabi, is teaching him to express himself through eye movement. He is one of 18 long-term patients at the facility receiving physiotherapy treatment, all of whom are Emirati.
It began with looking up for “yes” and down for “no”. But that has now been enhanced by the use of eye-gaze technology that responds to blinks and follows commands on a tablet computer. To continue his social interaction, Mr Al Ali, 35, from Al Rashidiya, has been working with Dubai calligraphy artist Salah Shaheen to create two pieces of art for his daughters, Almaha, 9, and Alya, 10.
Artist and patient have developed a strong bond, communicating through blinking to pass on ideas on how the artwork should look. Shaheen said: “It depends on your mood but this kind of art can take a long time. First, you think about your subject and what shape the art will be. Sometimes, if you are impressed or inspired by someone, like Badr, it is easier to create. “I had done nothing like this before. From his eyes, I could read his story – he gave me ideas of what he wanted and the colours to use.”
In the artwork, Mr Al Ali’s daughter’s names are written in calligraphy, with Almaha’s eyes painted on a background of colour. “Badr wanted to use the colour of the Sun and the sky,” said Shaheen. “He has given me another way to think about life and how lucky I am. We all have a story, even people who cannot move.” Other Amana patients involved in rehabilitation are learning languages, poetry and even fashion design. When the artwork was presented to Mr Al Ali, he spelled out three words of appreciation to Shaheen for his work. “You are incredible,” he said.
Mr Al Ali’s mother, Maria, said: “We have learnt to develop communication with his eyes. Now, when he wants to hear his daughters’ voices, we can ask him. It has helped him to be a father again.”
Margeaux Blignaut, an occupational therapist at the clinic, said communication and social interaction were an important part of a patient’s care. “With Badr, it has been hard for him to communicate his needs,” she said. “There had not been a way until the eye-gaze technology came along.” Inbuilt cameras in a computer follow a patient’s eyes and respond to blinks. The technology is constantly developing to allow users to become more independent, by blinking to activate devices or lights.
When Mr Al Ali arrived at Amana, therapists tested communication with his eyes and found he could recall his car number plate and old phone numbers. Ms Blignaut said: “Since we have been able to communicate with Badr, his personality has shone through. He has a good sense of humour, is a very open man and jokes a lot. He will sometimes make mistakes on purpose to test us, or make us laugh. “Communication has helped him deal with his frustration, I think.”