Living with paraplegia is one thing, consciously trying to overcome the boundaries set by the disability is another. Lee Joo-hyun, a freshman majoring in political science and international relations won the bronze medal in the CYBATHLON 2020 doing just that.
Unfamiliar to most people, the CYBATHLON is a unique championship contrived by ETH Zurich where people with physical disabilities compete against one another in everyday tasks with the assistance of cutting-edge technology. Due to the restrictions set by the pandemic, this year’s competition was individually filmed by each team in their own institution or laboratory and livestreamed.
Lee first heard of the competition when she was still receiving treatment at the Severance Hospital. It was her doctors who suggested her to take part in the competition. She took on the challenge, thinking that it was the best opportunity for personal growth.
She then joined Team Angel Robotics 2, one of the two Korean teams competing this year. The team consists of numerous mechanical engineers and rehabilitation physicians who came together to create the WalkOn Suit 4. This is a domestically developed exoskeleton robot designed to aid the walking of paraplegics, only available for testing in the laboratory. It took Lee a year and a half to completely adapt to the apparatus. Considering how quickly the technology for wearable robots is developing she is also hopeful for early commercialization.
Lee competed in one of the six disciplines in the CYBATHLON, the EXO – Powered Exoskeleton Race. This category is comprised of six individual tasks which include sit & stand, rough terrain, stair, slalom, tilted path and ramp & door.
“The most difficult of the six tasks was the stair task,” Lee said. “I had to support the weight of the robot suit and go up and down the stairs – it required a substantial amount of upper body strength.”
Lee also firsthand experienced the enthusiasm of the research team whenever the suit malfunctioned. They would pull all-nighters fixing and tweaking the device in order to make them work again. She had also been enrolled for the spring semester as she trained for EXO. Once the training was over it would be 10 p.m., and she could only start listening to lectures and start her assignments then.
In fact, Lee only lived with paraplegia for a relatively short time as she injured her spine in a car accident during her senior year of high school. Since then she took it as her motto not to feel crushed by things past.
“When I am going through tough times, I often conjure in my mind the positive end result that will be waiting after all the hurdles have been resolved. This is what keeps me going,” Lee said.
When conditions improve, Lee dreams of participating in other activities.
“I would like to join school clubs, often called the ‘flower of campus life’ and SSOM in particular, the shooting club,” Lee remarked.
As a freshman, Lee is unfortunately yet to experience the on-campus life. These are trivial but important things such as eating at the school cafeteria or shopping at the Ewha Coop that she would very much like to do.
“I took a class in the spring semester entitled Gender and History, and it really woke me up in terms of how women in Korean society have been systematically mistreated in history – it was a fresh shock,” Lee said.
Lee also hopes to work towards improving the rights of women and disabled people, thereby merging her two identities as a disabled female. She is happy that she chose Ewha, pointing out how helpful the Support Center for Students with Disabilities has been in taking into accounts the discomforts experienced by people like her.