Friday, June 19, 2009

Students invent new kinds of assistive technology

From the Las Vegas Sun in Nevada. In the picture, Steven Henrie lines up a putt while demonstrating his golfing grip invention for Cameron Stay, left, June 18 during the annual student Assistive Technology Fair at Touro University.

A glue-gun base became an invaluable welding tool, a pool ladder became a support stand and a wooden disc became new hope for disabled cowboys.

Those are just a few examples of the creative responses 25 Touro University students seeking master’s degrees in occupational therapy came up with when charged to invent a product to improve a disabled person’s quality of life.

The students unveiled their creations this morning at the Henderson university’s Fourth Annual Assistive Technology Fair.

The challenge — the final project in an assistive technology class that marks the halfway point of their two years of study — gave students the chance to blend life experience with their professional training.

Student Pamela Morales designed a welding tool for her brother, Rick Boyer, who teaches welding at Southeast Career and Technical Academy.

Boyer’s hand was severed in an automobile accident in 1982, and while doctors were able to reattach it, he has a limited range of motion.

The welding rod gun Morales designed allows her brother to squeeze a large handle that slowly feeds the rod into the weld, instead of having to put down his tools and manually feed the rod into the weld — something he had to do more than 30 times with each rod previously.

She said she went into occupational therapy because it allows her to help people like her brother regain the ability to do the things they love after a traumatic accident.

“When something changes in your life and you’re not able to do those things anymore, we come up with ways for you to be able to do them again and increase your independence,” Morales said. “I love it.”

Instructor Yvonne Randall said students in the program show more creativity and originality each year. While most occupational therapy programs wrap assistive technology into other courses, Randall said, Touro considers the area important enough for its own course.

The experience of helping a patient regain basic abilities through something they have designed is one that students will never forget, she said.

“Oh my goodness, it’s a joy that you’re helping someone,” Randall said. “The things we take for granted, an occupational therapist can help them get those things back.”

Another student, Adriane Boynton, said she has a family friend who has cerebral palsy that inspired her work. Though doctors told her friend when he was 5 years old that he would never walk, Boynton said, he has gone on to play hockey, ski, and do just about anything he wants.

One thing he couldn’t do, however, was join family and friends in competitions on Nintendo’s Wii Fit, which requires participants to stand on a sensor that picks up their motions. He can’t stand on his own.

“He tells me that with or without the disability, everybody just wants to be part of what their friends and family are doing,” Boynton said.

Determined to get him involved, Boynton took a ladder from an above-ground pool, made a few modifications, added some tape for padding, and created a stand to allow her friend to participate.

“We get to be creative. We get to be really familiar with our patients and leave a piece of ourselves with them,” Boynton said. “To be able to take someone who can’t play Wii or write their name and work with them to help them get their identity back, it’s something very special.”

Student McKinnon Carroll didn’t have firsthand experience with a disabled person to inspire her. What she did have, however, was a love of rodeo and an awareness of a problem that cowboys (and girls) face — getting a thumb caught up in a rope and losing it.

“I rope and I ride,” Carroll said. “I show horses and it’s a big deal to me to take care of my friends. It’s not a very well-researched population.”

Thumbs can be reattached in some cases, she said, but many ropers who go through that experience have to learn to throw with their other hand. So she designed a retraining device — a wooden disc with a spiral cut into it that mimics the throwing pattern of the roper’s dominant hand.

By inverting that pattern and cutting it into the disc, she said, a roper can sit underneath the device and move the rope through the spiral to train their other arm in the throwing motion.

“Everybody deserves to have medical studies done so that they can improve their sport,” Carroll said. “These guys are athletes, too. They’re just a different kind of athlete.”