“It’s a tiny, tiny human right,” says Emma Lawton, a 33-year-old graphic designer. “To be able to make that mark on a piece of paper. It’s your identity. And not to be able to do it is really upsetting.” She’s talking about an act that most of us do without thinking: writing our own name.
Emma has early-onset Parkinson’s disease and in the four years since she was diagnosed, the tremor in her right hand has grown progressively worse. Until, that is, she crossed paths with an inventor called Haiyan Zhang.
The pair were brought together for a new BBC2 series, The Big Life Fix with Simon Reeve. The premise of the show is simple. A group of young engineers and designers are tasked with solving life-changing problems for people like Emma who have nowhere else to turn.
For Haiyan, the challenge was: what could she do to help control Emma’s tremor? Emma first sensed something was not quite right at her father’s 60th birthday party in 2012. “I’d ignored it for about a year. I had a strange feeling in my right arm and hand – it felt a bit like I’d got a trapped nerve.” When a fellow guest noticed something amiss, Emma promised to see a doctor as a “birthday present” for her dad, who’d been nagging her to get the symptom checked out.
A couple of months later, the diagnosis came back. And, as the implications became clear, Emma grew gloomier.
Fixers: Ryan White, Haiyan Zhang, Simon Reeve, Ross Atkin and Yusuf Muhammad
Emma says that her work as a graphic designer is not just a job, it’s central to the way she defines herself. And graphic design obviously relies on being able to draw straight lines – something that’s impossible if your arm is shaking uncontrollably.
As she struggled to get her designs on paper, “I felt like crying. Because I knew that I was letting the team down. I had the ideas in my head but I just couldn’t get them to come out on paper.”
Could Haiyan help? The designer, whose day job is Innovation Director at Microsoft Research Cambridge, came up with a device that sounds utterly counterintuitive. The gadget is embedded in a wristband and works by deliberately shaking the user’s arm. In doing so, it appears to confuse the brain of the person with Parkinson’s, letting them write and draw with a precision that would otherwise be utterly impossible. That’s the theory. But in practice?
In the programme we see some startling initial results. We watch Emma as she writes her name for the first time in three years. Slowly, deliberately but totally successfully. Then we see her draw a near-perfect straight line.
“It was an amazing feeling. It made me feel like myself again,” says Emma.
It’s certainly a remarkable sight. But viewers might still wonder: is this a flash-in-the-pan TV stunt or might the solutions we see on screen prove to be truly life-changing? Could Haiyan’s invention go on to help some of the millions of people around the world with Parkinson’s?
Haiyan herself is cautious but upbeat. “I think it warrants more trials. It definitely works for Emma. I’m amazed how well it works for her.” She hopes a researcher will take on the project and run with it.
And Emma? She’s been using the device day in, day out, for months and says she’s thrilled by what it’s done for her.
Might it one day be a piece of standard kit for people with Parkinson’s? “I really hope so. I’m really excited to be able to wear it in public – and to be proud of it. Parkinson’s affects lots of people differently. But there’s a group of people for whom this will be fantastic.”