Photo: Jeanette Tamplin strums the guitar during a virtual reality singing session. (ABC News: Ryma Tchier )
Australians working to improve the lives of people with a disability will be recognised tonight at the National Disability Awards in Canberra.
There are 12 finalists across six categories including Employer of the Year, Excellence in Education and Training, and Innovation.
Dr Jeanette Tamlin, a music therapist from The University of Melbourne, is a finalist in the Innovation category for her virtual reality singing program.
"I wanted to work with people on their therapeutic goals in a way that's very social and immersive," Dr Tamlin said.
For people with severe spinal injuries, every breath is a challenge.
They often cannot control their stomach and chest muscles, and over time, their shallow breathing puts them at risk of dangerous respiratory problems.
Dr Tamlin already knew that singing was a great way for people with spinal injuries to learn to breathe better.
Photo: The study participants can gather anywhere online for a singing session, including at a virtual campfire. (Supplied: University of Melbourne )
"It trains them to use the muscles in their neck and shoulders. So it helps them to take deeper breaths and control the air over longer phases," she said.
But Dr Tamlin suspected that she could turn boring lung exercises into a fun group activity with the help of virtual reality (VR) technology.
"The beauty of VR technology is that we are making it accessible for people who are at home with quadriplegia or any disability that makes it hard to get out of the house," Dr Tamlin said.
With the help of VR goggles and headphones, Dr Tamlin is able to bring together a group of people across Australian for an online jam session.
"People can feel transported out of their physical environment, but it also helps them not to be as inhibited about singing," Dr Tamlin said.
"When they're sitting in a room singing together, they don't feel as confident, they might be a little bit embarrassed."
Photo: Study participant Steven Ribarich is fitted with virtual reality goggles for an online singing session. (ABC News: Tom Gelai )
Steven Ribarich, 52, suffered a severe spinal injury during a surfing accident.
Dr Tamplin's program has dramatically improved his breathing.
"It definitely helps me. I'm now able to raise my voice," he said.
Mr Ribarich was also surprised by how much he enjoyed singing in virtual reality.
"Singing makes me feel better. I get to express myself in a way that I can't when I speak, and no-one is looking at me, so it's fabulous," he said.
Social entrepreneurs make 'magic shoes' for kids
Photo: Melanie Tran (left), Melissa Fuller, and Johan Du Plessis say their mission is to give kids the equipment they need to be included in society. (ABC News: Rebecca Armitage )
For children with cerebral palsy, mobility braces are "magic shoes" that help them walk.
But the process of being fitted with ankle-foot orthoses (AFOs) can be long and unpleasant.
Children have to endure a plaster-casting process, and there is such a backlog of orders for the devices, that kids often have to wear AFOs long after they have outgrown them.
Social entrepreneurs Melissa Fuller, Johan Du Plessis and Melanie Tran realised that 3D printing technology could help.
Together they set up AbilityMate, which takes a quick and easy scan of a child's legs and creates what they call magic shoes with a 3D printer.
"Our mission is to help kids access the equipment they need to be included in society," AbilityMate's co-founder Melissa Fuller said.
The AFOs can be created in 48 hours and are far cheaper to produce than older methods.
Photo: The orthoses can be printed 48 hours after a child's legs are scanned. (Supplied: AbilityMate )
AbilityMate is currently focusing on Australian kids with cerebral palsy, but they have global aspirations.
"Currently, there are 100 million kids that need these devices and out of that 100 million, only one in 10 are currently getting these devices," co-founder Johan Du Plessis said.
"An orthotist anywhere in the world could potentially take a scan, upload it plus their prescription onto our website, then we would get a 3D printer in their local country and ship locally to them," he said.
The AbilityMate team is thrilled to be a finalist in the innovation category of the National Ability Awards.
"It's massive for us, and also it's really nice that there are these awards on the International Day of People with a Disability," Ms Fuller said.
Photo: Each pair of AbilityMate's orthoses can be monogrammed and personalised with colourful straps. (ABC News: Rebecca Armitage )...Read more