The gift of access

Ashley Thomas, a working mother of three from Durham, N.C., is the newest member of the United States National Para Canoe Sprint Team. Born with spina bifida, she has some leg use but can stand for only a few seconds.

She cannot train without help loading and unloading her kayak, and it is impossible to get the boat off the roof of her van herself. “It is lightweight, but I still could break the boat and we’d both go toppling down,” Thomas says. “I’d always have to lean on something, and could not safely get it to the ground.”

Enter seniors Jason Wright and Stamp Walden, of Richard Goldberg’s biomedical engineering class, where students spent the spring crafting devices to help those with disabilities. They dubbed their attempt to help Thomas as “Don’t Rock the Boat.” Wright is from Charlotte, N.C., and Walden is from Southern Pines, N.C.

The students altered a commercial vehicle rack so that Thomas can safely lower and raise the kayak. They also built a cart on which Thomas can place the kayak to roll it to and from the water.

Course first offered in 1998

Goldberg, a research associate professor in biomedical engineering, has been teaching the course since 1998. The students develop custom assistive technology devices for people with disabilities.

“Every engineering program in the country has a senior design class,” Goldberg says. “Ours differs in that the students work with real people and their everyday lives, and that’s what motivates them. They log the hours they put in, and the students will spend twenty to sixty hours each week.”

Thomas says the students have given her “the gift of access.”

“I can get it into the cart and down to the water and into the water. I’m very confident that the more I do it, that I’ll learn the tricks to it and it will be an efficient in and out. The great part is I can do it whenever I have time.”

Watch the related video above to learn more about the class projects:

Work Widgets
Morgan Leeds and Furat Sawafta developed two widgets to help clients at Community Workforce Solutions in Raleigh. They created the Box Folder, a PVC frame to help their client fold boxes and dramatically reduce the steps required. Before using the frame, he could not complete a single box. He now places an unfolded box in the frame, which provides a visual guide for folding and the sequence. For the other client, who is charged with cutting filament tape, they created the Turntable tape cutter. The cutter’s sliding rotary blade simplifies the process and is easier on her shaky hands than a pair of scissors.

Leeds is from Durham, N.C., and Sawafta is from Greensboro, N.C.

Horseplay Signaling System
Rocco DiSanto, from Morganton, N.C., developed a way to help horseback riders with visual impairments guide horses independently. At the North Carolina Therapeutic Riding Center, DiSanto attached radio transmitters to poles. His client wears a radio transmitter belt while riding, which beeps when he approaches poles. The setup enables the client to know his location in the arena so he can navigate the horse with minimal input from volunteers.

View It
Kailey Boyce and Ameeka George helped a local 8-year-old boy with autism and deMorsier’s syndrome (a syndrome in which the optic nerve is underdeveloped). He has pockets of vision and continually searches a page for oversized letters and images. To do this, he bends over his desk until he is inches from the page, which can lead to poor posture. After building one prototype, they modified the commercial product Versa Table to fit his needs. Now, he can read, write and use a keyboard while seated in an upright position, whether at home or at school. The device has multiple positions and a clamp for book or paper.

Boyce is from Charlotte, N.C., and George is from Swedesboro, N.J.

Safe, professional-looking, durable

Goldberg says that the devices produced through those long hours have to be safe, professional-looking and durable. “It’s a whole different level than you typically find in a senior design course.”

Goldberg gets project ideas from local therapists and clinicians, who, in turn, serve as project advisors throughout the semester. Students spend time with clients so they can understand the challenges they face, then design and develop devices.

“Being engineering students, they want to immediately start building stuff. We get them to slow down and understand the problem before building anything,” Goldberg says.

Lectures and class discussions focus on engineering design and communications; working with people with disabilities; ethical issues in assistive technology; patents; and other issues. This year’s class worked with UNC occupational therapy students, who gave clinical feedback on the designs and helped with clinical assessments.

At semester’s end, students delivered their devices to the therapists and clients at no extra charge.

Multiply the impact

Goldberg says he’d like to do more to help those with disabilities. He gets requests from people wanting devices that his students developed, so he’s looking for ways to produce more devices. “I’d like to build collaborations and find the expertise we need. Several projects could have a potentially large impact on certain populations. All of this is to multiply the impact of what we are trying to do.”

The students’ work parallels that of a similar class at Duke University. During the semester, the two classes share progress and present their prototypes to each other via videoconferencing.

This year, Work Widgets won third place in the NISH Ability One national design competition for projects that aid people with disabilities in the workplace. The students will split a $3,000 award, and matching awards go to UNC and Community Workforce Solutions.

This is seventh consecutive year that UNC students have won a top-three award or been a finalist in the competition. Students have won a total of $18,000 in awards, with matching amounts going to the University and collaborating agencies.

The class receives funding from the National Science Foundation and support from the UNC Center for Public Service, where Goldberg is a member of the Faculty Engaged Scholars Program, and the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the Curriculum in Applied Sciences and Engineering.

Video by Rob Holliday and story by Scott Jared, UNC-Chapel Hill University Relations.