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Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Michael Patrick Thornton A Chicago Actor with A Disability Trades Wheelchair for Robotic Exoskeleton in Shakespeare's play "Richard III,"

Chicago — For the first time ever, an actor using a robotic exoskeleton — an apparatus that helps wheelchair users walk — will perform on a Chicago stage, bringing much-needed awareness to the relatively new technology that has potential to help disabled people across the world, advocates say.

This is an older version of the ReWalk. Michael Thornton currently uses their newest upgrade, and has stated that it "a fantastic device".

nice article By Mina Bloom for DNAinfo Chicago | March 9, 2016
Michael Patrick Thornton, who has appeared on ABC's "Private Practice," uses the exoskeleton in his role as Richard in the Shakespearean play "Richard III," a Gift Theatre Company Production that debuts Thursday at Steppenwolf's Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted St.

The play tells the story of Richard, the King of England's brother, and his murderous quest to be king. Thornton plays Richard, who has a number of physical deformities, including a hunchback, weak arm and a limp.

Thornton, now 37, suffered from two spinal cord strokes at 24 that almost took his life, rendering him unable to walk and speak. Luckily, with the help of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, Thornton regained his ability to speak and act.

"If I didn't have [the Rehabilitation Institute] there would absolutely be no way I'd be able to do any of this," he said. "I was extremely fortunate I was a Chicagoan. Without the care, there's no way I would be able to return to doing what I love."

In the face of adversity, the Jefferson Park native has seen success in the acting world.

He co-founded The Gift Theatre, where he is also the artistic director, and landed a recurring role on ABC's "Private Practice." In 2011, he played a small part in "The Dilemma," a film starring Vince Vaughn directed by Ron Howard.

But Thornton said he has felt limited as an actor at times. In many cases, production companies will only hire disabled actors for disabled parts, he said.

"I feel limited by society's unwillingness to see that we move differently in parts where disability is not contextualized," he said. "It seems to always be part of a plot or subplot."

In "Richard III," Thornton will use a robotic exoskeleton on stage, an apparatus created by ReWalk Robotics, the company that designs and manufactures them.

"I feel stronger. It's fantastic. It's great to tower above actors who I'm used to looking up to," he said.

The exoskeleton allows individuals with spinal cord injuries to stand upright and walk using a powered brace, a computer-based control system and motion sensors to mimic the natural gait pattern of legs. It's the only apparatus of its kind approved by the FDA for both personal use and rehabilitation use in the country.

"I think technology like this challenges you and pushes you and allows you to move in a better way," Thornton said. "It wakes up muscles that have not been challenged for some time. It's important for non-disabled people to see that. I think the future is rapidly approaching and it will blend into the fabric of society."

The goal is to expose more people to the technology, according to Arun Jayaraman, who works for the Center of Bionic Medicine at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

"We want our patrons to be able to access new technology really fast," he said. "People are able to walk and participate in everyday activities" with the exoskeleton.

Right now, Thornton is only using the exoskeleton in the play, and not in real life. But he said he would love to use one at home.

Tickets for "Richard III," which runs through May 1, can be bought online.

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