These robots let children with long-term illnesses participate in school lessons
The coronavirus pandemic has brought social isolation to the forefront of our minds.
Many of us are now going back to a version of ‘normality’ but, for really sick children, this sustained isolation is a reality they face every single day.
As schools go back over the coming weeks, there are a number of children in the UK suffering with long-term illnesses who will not be returning to the classroom.
Instead, due to their weaker immune systems, they will be staying at home for their safety.
This means they not only miss out on crucial education but all the social elements that come with school.
No Isolation is a technology company – co-founded by Karen Dolva – that designs products to help individuals, particularly children, suffering with loneliness as a result of their physical isolation.
‘We really try to live up to our name. We hope that we contribute to a world where people are less socially isolated and where loneliness is something that is recognised as both dangerous and painful and something that we should collectively fight against,’ Karen Dolva tells Metro.co.uk.
‘We actually started a company without knowing what product we were going to make, we knew we wanted to make something for kids suffering from long-term illness and our job was to figure out what would help them the most.’
Karen was determined to come up with a product that would make the day-to-day lives of sick children easier, happier and better. And, after a lot of research and interviews with parents and teachers, a robot called AV1 was born.
She says: ‘For us, it became all about how do we get them out of their beds and into the classroom and schoolyard environment and it ended up being AV1 – a telepresence solution that they can remote control.’
AV1 is physically designed to look human-like and has interactive features which lets a child at home sit with the class, watch the teacher, speak and even raise their hand in class – all thanks to a light which flashes when a child at home puts their hand up.
Karen adds: ‘So if you are in your sickbed for a long long time, you get an AV1 and it acts like an extension of yourself really. The kids dress it up and give it their own robot name and make it really cute.
‘It’s called AV1 on purpose – a very boring name, very technical name, so that they can give it their own nicknames. So you can have RoboJohn and Bea.’
Karen says that the AV1 allows these sick children to experience everyday moments that many of us take for granted – or don’t even think about when they are actually happening.
She says: ‘You could laugh at the same YouTube video as everyone else because you were there, but you’d never stop to think I truly appreciate that I got to see that YouTube video. But the fact that you saw it means you have the same reference as everyone else.
‘I get emails from parents that are happy they now have something to talk about over the dinner table. Their 10-year-old has something to share, they weren’t there physically but they were there in their robot and they could comment and maybe they were funny and that gives them a boost. All these tiny things, they matter a lot.’
Currently, around 400 children in the UK are using these robots – but Karen says with 72,000 children suffering with long term illnesses every year, there’s still a long way to go.
At the moment, No Isolation is working with UK councils to make the robots more accessible for children. Karen believes it should be down to councils to purchase them, rather than the parents of sick children.
She adds: ‘We’ve been figuring out how we can make AV1 available to everyone, so not just a rich people’s tool, because that would be the worst to be honest.
‘Most of our volume goes out through councils and that’s where we put our efforts and energy. I think it shouldn’t be up to families. We very often see the sicker a child gets, the more likely that one of the parents (at least) stops working, which puts an extra strain on the families and that’s not where our focus should be.
‘It’s about getting those councils to get those things in place and if they choose something that isn’t AV1 I’m happy with that as well – as long as they have something for these kids.’
Of course, these robots don’t have to be used exclusively for lessons, some children decide to use them at school lunchtimes to socialise with other children.
Other kids, like Luuk, use their robot in other ways.
Luuk was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia in October 2019. Due to chemotherapy, Luuk’s immunity is reduced making him more susceptible to picking up bugs and germs. This means his love of the great outdoors has been put on hold – something which is particularly difficult for him, as his family lives on a farm.
SpecialEffect, a charity which uses technology to enhance the quality of life for those with illnesses and disabilities, loaned the family an AV1 robot which Luuk named ‘Nick.’
This meant that Luuk’s dad, an agricultural contractor, could give Luuk rides on his tractor, by taking Nick on the passenger seat – who acted as his eyes and ears.
Karen’s own experiences of loneliness inspired her to start her business No Isolation.
After choosing to go to university in her home town, Karen thought she would be surrounded by familiar faces and friends. When she realised most of her friends had moved away, she found the experience incredibly isolating and shut herself off from the world for a few months.
She says: ‘I didn’t realise this was something I was struggling with, it took a long time before I realised I had to force myself to attend events and be out there.
‘The more of a distance you get with the world, the harder it is to cover it and our brain goes into safety mode where it’s much easier to pull away.
‘Luckily, I had a couple of people around me who really helped. Not everyone is that privileged.
‘I have a much greater understanding of what happened to me now that I’ve read tonnes of research and I think it’s quite telling that loneliness is a feeling so it’s hard to measure and also it’s completely controlled by your own expectations.
‘Most of us have experienced loneliness at some point. I find it shocking that whenever I start talking about loneliness people don’t jump to say “I understand what you mean” but you see a deep sense of understanding in most people – they’ve definitely felt it themselves as well.’
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