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Making a difference in the community

Biomechanical engineering students are designing and building assistive devices for people living with disabilities.

Queen’s Engineering students Leigh Janssen, pictured, and Olivia Roud are working with Kingston resident Jim Stinson this summer to develop assistive devices to enable him to read and write more independently.

Having access to the best assistive technologies can mean the difference between dependence and independence for people living with disabilities. The simple joy of reading an exciting novel, for example, can be out of reach for someone who can’t comfortably hold a book upright and open or turn its pages for long enough to get lost in the story.

“I’m at the point where I either need someone to read to me or I can listen to audiobooks,” says Jim Stinson, who uses a wheelchair and has Multiple Sclerosis that affects his ability to hold a book or a pen. “But a big factor in reading a book is that you get to imagine the different scenarios. When the story is read to me, someone else develops the characters with their imagination. I like to do that myself.”

There are lots of assistive devices on the market that propose to help people with similar challenges but mass-market devices so often demand compromises from end users. Results are much better with custom assistive devices, or devices that can be infinitely adapted over time to an individual user’s specific needs and wants.

That’s where Queen’s engineering students come in.

Fourth-year Biomechanical Engineering students Olivia Roud and Leigh Janssen, under the supervision of Professor Claire Davies, are working with Stinson this summer to design, build, and refine the devices he wants to enable him to read and write more routinely and independently.

“This was our first experience getting to work with an actual end user and someone in the community,” says Janssen. “As undergraduates, our projects are often based on hypothetical problems involving imaginary people. Getting to work with Jim, an actual client, and address his needs directly is great experience. Jim gives so much more information and feedback than we would get in a hypothetical situation.”

Among the devices Roud and Janssen are working on is a special copy stand to fit over the armrest of Stinson’s wheelchair. It can help support the weight of a book and hold it open in just the right position so Stinson can read the text clearly and turn the pages much more easily. Another device provides support for Stinson’s right forearm to help steady his hand for writing with a pen.

“With the system they’ve developed, I can write more easily,” says Stinson. “I can sit here and read a book pretty naturally, so I’ll be able to finish all the books I’ve started but couldn’t read to the end.”

“It’s an iterative process,” says Roud. “There are some stability issues in some of the devices at the moment but the next steps are to look at the designs, take them apart, and improve each piece until we get the best results we can for Jim.”

For Roud and Janssen, the first steps on the road to this project came as part of Dr. Davies’ MECH 393 Biomedical Product Design course. That course is part of an interdisciplinary initiative, called Building Better Together, in collaboration with PhD student Elizabeth Delarosa (Mechanical and Materials Engineering), and Professors Catherine Donnelly (Rehabilitation Therapy), and Susanne Murphy (Rehabilitation Therapy). In it, Biomechanical Engineering students collaborate with Occupational Therapy students to make custom assistive devices for real-world end users.

“Four teams work with each end user in the course,” says Dr. Davies. “Then, the end users decide which devices to move forward with. I’ve engaged a couple of students from the class in each of the past two summers to move those projects forward. We iterate on the designs until they meet the end users’ needs before we give the devices to the end user. We re-interview the end user after one week using quality assessment tools that enable us to evaluate how well the devices perform. We do that again after four weeks, and again after six months. That’s how we ensure the needs of that end user are met throughout the year and the devices continue to be beneficial into the future.”

For Stinson, the preferred outcome is quite simple: more independence in his daily life.

“The philosophy I use in my life is that if you have a problem, you learn how to work around it,” he says. “We’ve worked around some things that were difficult for me and the devices they’ve developed are very good solutions for people who have difficulty reading or writing. I have nothing but great things to say about the engineers and occupational therapists who work at Queen’s.”

If you have difficulty with one or more tasks and might benefit from an assistive device developed for you with the researchers and students of Building Better Together, email BBTkingston@gmail.com for more information.