Working Toward Independence

Occupational therapy and engineering students collaborate with people with disabilities to create assistive technologies that improve lives
Five-year-old girl gets help with technology to allow her to grip toy tea set
Five-year-old Harper tries out a new assistive technology device created by Tufts engineering and occupational therapy students. Photo: Anna Miller
May 25, 2017

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Five-year-old Harper loved the dollhouse at her kindergarten, but a spinal cord injury at birth prevented her from being able to grasp and move the tiny furniture and dolls. Randy, a 64-year-old who sustained a traumatic brain injury in his 20s, wanted to be able to lift a tray fitted to his wheelchair. And there was Ryan, a young adult with quadriplegia, who recently adopted a service dog named Oliver. He wanted to be able to manage Oliver’s harness—which lets the dog know he’s on duty—himself.

Harper, Randy and Ryan were among seven people with disabilities who came to room 401 in the Collaborative Learning and Innovation Complex, or CLIC, in early April. It was their third time talking with Tufts students—and testing out some emerging ideas—in an experimental, interdisciplinary occupational therapy and engineering course called Assistive Technology Innovations, which aims to create customized devices to help increase their independence.

Funded by a Tufts Innovates grant, the course requires that students work just as the class teachers do, in interdisciplinary teams. Working along with course co-creator and teaching fellow Amy Fleischer, BSOT15, are Jennifer Buxton, a lecturer in occupational therapy; Daniel Hannon, professor of the practice in human factors; and Gary Leisk, senior lecturer in mechanical engineering. 

Fleischer was optimistic that the class would deliver novel solutions as students listened closely to their clients and then engineered prototypes one floor down in CLIC’s Maker Studio and at Bray Lab just down the street. “We hope that by bringing students together from different disciplines, they gain greater understanding of how their skills and perspectives can complement one another,” Fleischer said.

Devyn Curley, E15, E17, was part of a small team of students working with Ryan. He and his teammates huddled as Ryan described his daily routine, which included outfitting Oliver with a harness as often as seven times a day. Ryan wanted to be able to do that himself, but the existing harness buckle was too difficult to manipulate. For an alternative, Ryan’s team found a knob that tightens straps on snowboard boots, and next, with Ryan’s help, figured out the specifications that would help him.

A team of Tufts students collaborated with Ryan to craft a device that will enable him to independently put a harness on his service dog, Oliver. “To be able, in one semester, to improve someone’s independence ever so slightly, that’s incredible,” said Devyn Curley, second from left. Photo: Anna MillerThat kind of communication is key, Fleischer said. “Working alongside a person with a disability—rather than strictly working ‘for’ them—requires that students develop skills of collaboration with the people they aim to serve in their careers.”

The team later fabricated the circular fastener on a 3D printer, and though they struggled with sewing it to the harness, Ryan’s aunt, a professional seamstress, volunteered to attach it. It now takes Ryan only two minutes to put the harness on and take it off Oliver, and that should get faster with practice. “To be able, in one semester, to improve someone’s independence ever so slightly, that’s incredible,” said Curley. “Yes, it’s small—it’s a dog collar—but Ryan showed us how important even those small steps are. And that’s better than any A.”

Try, Try Again

Occupation therapy graduate student Stephanie Fungsang talks with Randy about plans for a wheelchair tray device that he can move independently. Photo: Anna MillerAnother group worked that April afternoon on a wheelchair tray table for Randy. It’s fitted and fixed to his chair by caregivers, but Randy wanted to be able to lift it up and out of the way himself. 

Stephanie Fungsang, BSOT18, watched as her engineering teammate Calvin Liang, a human factors graduate student, traced Randy’s existing tray, so that the team could identify the dimensions and customizations they needed to incorporate into their model.

During an earlier brainstorming session, they realized the movement they were looking for was just like opening a pizza box.  

“We went to a pizza shop and asked to buy some pizza boxes and they just gave us some,” Fungsang said, and in fact, “the pizza box was a great, low-tech prototype” for their emerging idea. The box’s lid—or tray surface—could open 270 degrees, “which was exactly what we needed Randy’s tray to do, and that helped us visualize the next step.” The team later fabricated a working prototype out of acrylic with a laser cutter in Bray Lab, and looked forward to giving it a trial run with Randy in a later class.

Team Harper was already testing their prototype in April, a vacuum-powered gripper. In the classroom, they attached the gripper, a small pink balloon partially filled with coffee grounds, to a brace on Harper’s wrist. When Harper placed the balloon over a thimble-sized teacup, Nate Typrowicz-Cohen, A11, who is working on a certificate in manufacturing engineering, sent air into it through a motorized vacuum pump.

“Give it a good squish,” Typrowicz-Cohen said. The balloon enveloped the cup—it was now up to Harper to set the tea table. After two tries, she placed the tiny cup on its saucer and beamed, “It’s perfect!” 

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.