Canberra man Paul Jenkins is a paraplegic who wants to walk on stage at the University of Canberra this April and accept his two Bachelor degrees.
Thanks to newly approved technology, the 27-year-old is on track to do just that.
Mr Jenkins is trialling an exoskeleton device worth $80,000 in a bid to become the first Australian to have the equipment funded by the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
The device, aptly named the ReWalk, has a built-in motor that allows people with lower limb disabilities such as stroke and paralysis to walk using crutches.
A motorcycle accident left Mr Jenkins wheelchair-bound in 2006, but the Canberran believes the exoskeleton will revolutionise spinal injury recovery across Australia.
Mr Jenkins was the first Australian approved for NDIS training in the ReWalk and after his first experience in the device last year he knew it was a game changer.
“I’d never tried anything like it before and compared to the chair it’s like chalk and cheese,” Mr Jenkins said.
“The chair is so short it’s degrading, in the exoskeleton people look at you differently straight away. One of the first things you notice is a lot more people smile at you.
“It’s simple things like being at eye level with someone, that’s massive, I’m 6’2” but in the chair I’m 4′.
“Some people completely ignore your existence when you’re in a chair, I can understand why because it’s not familiar but it gets under your skin and in the ReWalk I don’t have to bear that anymore.”
Mr Jenkins linked up with exercise physiologist Jim Barrett to trial the ReWalk on the Gold Coast in September and thanks to stem cell therapy and countless hours of physiotherapy, he immediately excelled.
“I’ve had the ReWalk for two years now and put over 50 people in the device, but Paul’s progress is the best I’ve seen,” Mr Barrett said.
“The best part for me as the trainer is the first time you stand them up and you look them in the eye and their whole face changes,” Barrett said.
“Their loved ones become really emotional too. I remember Paul’s mum said to him ‘I didn’t realise you were so tall’, it’s those kind of moments you can’t replace.
Mr Barrett said the exoskeleton provides just as many psychological benefits as it does physical.
“There are a lots social and psycho-social benefits, generally people in a wheelchairs attract a lot more attention than those in a ReWalk. They just want to walk into a room, look people in the eye and be included in a social setting, and now they can,” he said.
“Paul is a real pioneer in this and hopefully it will set a big precedent for Australians in wheelchairs.”
Mr Jenkins said one of the most significant attributes of the Rewalk is it enables people to walk outside and up stairs.
“It’s the optimal device because it allows me to walk outside and interact in the community which is a big point of difference,” Mr Jenkins said.
“Nobody has ever walked on sand in an exoskeleton but on the Gold Coast I did and it was awesome, I could feel the surface on my feet.
“It’s incredible what it can do, there is even a function where if I fall over I can get back up and now that they’re invented, I think they’re absolutely the future.”
Mr Jenkins said while the future of the device was exciting, it must gain traction in Australia and other markets to continue to develop and that began with approval from insurance companies and the NDIS.
“With any new technology you need people passionate to get them off the ground, so we see the next generation exoskeleton become a reality,” Mr Jenkins said.
Mr Barrett flew to Canberra in January to work through the intermediate training with Mr Jenkins and this month the duo will link again in Queensland to begin advanced training.
“The end goal is to keep improving every day for the rest of my life, just keep moving towards that direction getting out of the chair permanently,” Mr Jenkins said.
This story first appeared on SMH.