Inspired by an uncle diagnosed with Parkinson’s, Indian product designer Mileha Soneji has created several simple products to help people with the condition.
Between 7 and 10 million people worldwide are living with Parkinson’s -- a progressive disease that attacks the nervous system and causes tremors, impaired balance and stiffness, among other symptoms.
Soneji, who comes from the city of Pune in India, watched as her uncle -- once a fun-loving and energetic figure in her life -- deteriorated in health after his diagnosis.
"He used to be the center of attention at all the family reunions, then he started to hide behind others,” Soneji told HuffPost France. “He hid from the pity he saw in people’s eyes.”
Soneji took time to interview her uncle and observed him to better appreciate the difficulties he faces on a daily basis. During one of their conversations, he confessed that he had stopped drinking tea or coffee in public out of embarrassment.
“Technology isn’t always the solution.”
That’s when the designer thought up the spill-proof cup. Her invention is curved inward at the top to deflect the liquid back inside the cup in the event of a tremor. It also has a larger-than-normal handle.
“The key here is that it is not tagged as a Parkinson’s patient product. It looks like a cup that could be used by you, me, any clumsy person,” Soneji said in a TED Talk in February 2015. “And that makes it much more comforting for them to use, to blend in."
Soneji plans to have the cup ready for sale on the No Spill website in the next six or seven months. Its price could deter some, however, as it's projected to cost approximately 150 euros (about $170).
Soneji believes that empathy and imagination is key to a successful design.
"You have to imagine and create objects that meet the needs of people who are sick, who have disabilities," she told HuffPost France.
As she continued to observe her uncle, Soneji found an opportunity for yet another invention that would improve the quality of life of Parkinson's patients.
She noticed that he found it easier to walk up or down the staircase in his home than on flat ground.
"So this person who could not walk on flat land was suddenly a pro at climbing stairs," she said in her TED Talk. “On researching this, I realized that it’s because it is a continuous motion. So the key for me was to translate this feeling of walking on a staircase back to flat land.”
She played around with some ideas and finally landed on a simple two-dimensional representation of a staircase that can be glued to the ground to allow people with Parkinson’s to walk quicker and smoother. She calls it the “staircase illusion.”
“Technology isn’t always the solution,” Soneji told HuffPost France, explaining that the best solutions, in her experience, have been the simples.
Soneji now works in the Netherlands and is currently co-writing a paper on the "staircase illusion" with Bastiaan Bloem, a consultant neurologist at the Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre. Bloem was charmed by Soneji's staircase idea and plans to test it on more patients. Even though her uncle is the only patient so far who has tried and benefited from the "staircase illusion," Soneji hopes her designs will improve many more lives.
A version of this post first appeared on HuffPost France. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity.