Guest post contributed by Clarice Torrey, occupational therapist and winner of UCP Life Lab’s recent Design-athon People’s Choice Award.
I nerded out a bit when I first saw @UCPLifeLabs tweet about the Enabled-by Design-athon in DC. I had already become familiar with Enabled by Design and UCP Life Labs through the wonderful world of Twitter, but this event was exactly what I’d been looking for. I’m an occupational therapist who works primarily with children who have cerebral palsy, and I want to blend my knowledge of disability with my passion for designing and making. Over the past 10+ years as an occupational therapist, I have designed and fabricated many adaptive aids and splints. The Design-athon felt like it was made for me.
Even so, I didn’t exactly know what to expect. Thursday morning I walked into the event at Google’s DC headquarters and was assigned to a team consisting of Jessica Bonness, an interior designer, educator and our team facilitator; Jessica Denson, an interior design student; Emily Flax, an industrial designer; Patricia Torres, a universal design student; and Reem Bagais, an interior design student. We started with empathy exercises to gain a better understanding of what it’s like to have a disability. For instance, we put on gloves to search for items in our purse and used earplugs/headphones to simulate a hearing impairment. The exercise that resonated the most with us was doing activities with limited dexterity and only having the use of one upper extremity.
Our question became this: How can we facilitate increased independence for people with limited to no use of one upper extremity? There are so many daily activities most people take for granted that are made possible or easier with two hands. We wanted a tool that could be worn or at least easily accessible to provide the stabilization that so many two-handed tasks require. For instance when zipping up a jacket, you can complete the task with only one hand, but it will probably take you longer and you might have to use your teeth or another awkward adaptation.
As an occupational therapist, I do activity analysis so often it’s become second nature. One thing I frequently tell families is that the two hands don’t have to have equal skills in order to be functional. Almost all of us have a dominant hand that does most of the work, I usually call the other hand the “helper hand.” It’s the stabilizer. We used this information to brainstorm: How do we stabilize or grip objects? How do we attach things to our bodies?
The wall and sticky notes quickly became our friends.
As the word wearable was written on the wall, Emily saw it as “we are able” and we quickly decided that was our team name. We continued brainstorming.
Emily took the lead and we began adding to our lists and calling out some really random things. At one point, I became extremely interested in the idea of electromagnetics. I excused myself from the group for a bit to consult with some engineering/tech friends: Philip Lindsay and Darian Ahler. One of the original team ideas was a bracelet with an attachment to stabilize something. In the case of zipping up a jacket, you would reach over to one side of the jacket and activate an electromagnet to stabilize the jacket, as your unaffected hand managed the zipper and pulled it up. My friends talked me through solenoids and balloon/coffee grounds grippers. As I tried to do some research on the feasibility of something higher tech, the rest of the team continued working on other ideas.
It was a real shuffle to present to the crowd and update them on our progress. It was also a good way to keep us moving forward. It was fun to hear what the other seven teams at the event were working on. There was clearly some amazing minds coming together to come up with beautiful, functional designs to benefit all.
Our design continued to develop that first day. We had the opportunity to consult with Brett Heising of brettapproved.com. He has limited dexterity in his right hand. He told us the most difficult tasks for him were tying a tie and buttoning the top button and sleeves of a dress shirt. I simulated our design theory by using my hand to form a “clip” and stabilize the material of his shirt sleeve held together. He still wasn’t able to button the button.
I asked Brett if he had ever used a button hook, which is a common buttoning aid. He said he had, but challenged us to come up with a better design. We realized that our stabilizer had the potential to develop by adding different attachments based on the individual needs. I continued problem-solving a tool for this specific task, but it is still in development.
The stabilizing gripper we had designed would facilitate tying a tie though and we began to list all of the activities it would help with. It could help zip up jackets, open ziplock baggies, open other packages, hold a fork for cutting with a knife, hold paper while cutting with scissors, and hold a smartphone for the other hand to easily access.
As our first day came to an end, we felt that the palm of the hand would provide more stability than the wrist and that a low tech attachment would be more feasible. The next day we would bring various materials and clips to problem-solve what would work best. We consulted with representatives from PSC Engineering who were on hand with 3-D printers to print out a modified version of a slide clip pants hanger clip, which is the type of attachment piece we were leaning towards.
As I left the first day, I was exhausted and exhilarated. Now that we had a basic concept, I needed some hands-on inspiration. I needed to touch and feel materials and process. I walked up and down every aisle of a local Wal-Mart letting my brain work through the possibilities. I bought ribbon, chain and leather bracelets, yarn, a crochet hook, metal picnic tablecloth clips, and various other supplies we could possibly use tomorrow to put together a prototype. I knew it wouldn’t be as pretty as I would like, but I knew it might help us make a functioning tool.
Friday morning was crunch time. Patricia set to work on the computer animated design. Jessica worked on the slides for the presentation. With everyone’s “supply” contribution in the middle of the table some of us began playing with materials. We ended up using the tablecloth hooks and reformed them into a universal cuff. We covered the metal in leather and attached a slide-lock hanger clip. We covered the clip in Sugru for aesthetics and for greater stability at the latch.
We were still making changes it was time to present to the judges, but we were proud of what we made in just a short time. This small tool had the ability to assist people with cerebral palsy, stroke, arthritis and other disabilities be more functional and independent. Our presentation went well, and I really felt that the judges and the people in the room appreciated and valued our hard work and what we had done in such a short time. We were awarded the People’s Choice Award and a Google Chromecast each! Brett talked to us about a friend in Arizona that could help with bringing our design to market.
For me, the Design-athon was an opportunity to collaborate with like-minded people passionate about design and disability. It allowed me to blend my knowledge, creativity, and passion. Designing and making adaptive aides has been one of my life pursuits, and with this experience, I feel confident that I am moving in the right direction.