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Occupational therapy students explore a new technique in adaptive technology

This semester, students in the College of Public Health and Temple’s Tyler School of Art are bringing a burgeoning practice in adaptive technology to HMS School for Children with Cerebral Palsy in Philadelphia.

In a multidisciplinary effort, students are designing and creating custom adaptations, such as a booster seat that helps a child with paralysis sit upright or a small table that’s just their size, that increase function in those with disabilities.

Unlike typical adaptations, though, each piece is composed of cardboard, rather than wood or metal, and custom-made for each user.

Much stronger than the average corrugated cardboard, a box made of triple-wall cardboard can withstand more than 100 pounds of pressure. Yet, it’s still lighter than other materials, which makes the cardboard products more portable and easier to fix or adjust. It costs, on average, less than $50 to fabricate a cardboard adaptation, where buying a commercially-produced one can cost hundreds. That’s an important factor when creating adaptations for children who will quickly outgrow them.

“There are a lot of possibilities,” said Rochelle Mendonca, an assistant professor of instruction in the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences and co-leader of the effort at Temple. “It’s interesting to see what you can do with it.”

Cardboard adaptations came to Philadelphia earlier this year when the Institute on Disabilities at Temple University, part of the College of Education, created the Adaptive Design Greater Philadelphia project thanks to a grant from the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. The institute invited Alex Truesdell, the fabricator and adaptive designer spearheading the cardboard technique, to hold a workshop in the city.

Mendonca and Susan Santalucia, an assistant professor of instruction in Rehabilitation Sciences, were aware of the practice but, like many in the area, hadn’t seen it in action before then. After attending the workshop, they integrated it into this semester’s assistive technology course for occupational therapy (OT) graduate students.

Over four weeks, OT students are creating cardboard adaptations for children who attend HMS School. They visited in early October and spoke with and evaluated 17 children for their wants and needs. That meeting yielded more than 40 requests: everything from adaptations to help children sit in dining room chairs to shades that mount on wheelchairs and reduce glare on their iPads to tools that help them play sports.

After deciding on around 20 unique designs and measuring each child for custom adaptations, OT students collaborated with colleagues in the Architecture Department at Tyler School of Art to create workable designs for the devices. Then, they began building the adaptations using cardboard, hot glue and dowels. They’ll bring them back to HMS School for fittings and hand them off to other Tyler students to decorate.

So far, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, from the students as well as the children and their teachers and therapists. Creating something unique to each person goes further than the design: In the workshops, children and their families also help build the actual products.

“No one knows what a person needs better than the person themselves. The children get a sense of ownership over the design, which empowers them to think about what they’d like to do with them,” said Mendonca.

Learn more about Temple Occupational Therapy here.

Posted:  November 10, 2017