USU students use grant money, build technology that assists aging population

The Utah Assistive Technology Program (UATP) received a $125,000 grant from the National Science Foundation last fall, and they need the community’s input to come up with possible projects. The first of 70 million baby boomers began reaching the age of 65 in 2011. The grant money funds a proposal called Engineering Design to Aid Aging Persons (EDAAP) and has been specified for developing technologies that will help the baby boomers counteract the effects of aging. “Assistive technology is simply defined as the development and provisions of devices and service that help people circumvent the effects of disabilities,” said Amy Henningsen, an occupational therapist and program coordinator at the Center for Persons with Disabilities (CPD). The grant will be spread over 5 years and will be used by the UATP and engineering students at Utah State University. The CPD, a federally mandated program that has brought its services to persons with disabilities across the state for the past 40 years, has housed the UATP lab for 20 years. Assistive technologies created at the lab range from low- to high-tech innovations, from large utensils that make eating dinner easier to home modifications that enable persons with disabilities to regain independence. The lab also handles assistive technology maintenance and repair, device fabrication, training and research in the technology. The grant money must be used for supplies for projects or be used toward taking the designs commercial. This includes getting patents and marketing the product. USU mechanical engineering students and CPD employees work together to design and create assistive technology, said UATP lab coordinator Clay Christensen. “It’s exciting to see what (the students) learn hands-on. It’s so different from the classroom,” Christensen said. Two projects have used the NSA’s grant money so far. James Somers has been part of a team refining a mechanism that more easily loads a wheelchair into the trunk of a car. Henningsen and her her mother, who uses a wheelchair, went shopping one day. After the long day, Henningsen had only enough energy to help her mother into the car. Henningsen had to solicit help from a passerby to load the wheelchair into the trunk. This incident led to the concept of the wheelchair lift and eventually its design. The wheelchair lift allows the user to put the chair in the trunk of a vehicle while exerting only 20 pounds of force. The user straps the wheelchair to the lift, turns a handle to get the chair in a horizontal position and then slides the chair back into the trunk. The lift is built so that the user can stop halfway through the process and the chair will not fall. The lift is attached to the to the trunk with a clamp, meaning the trunk doesn’t need to be modified to use the device. The other project is a technician’s creeper, used by auto mechanics to easily access the underside of the car. Albert La Bounty became a paraplegic 20 years ago due to a motorcycle accident. He lost the use of everything below his arms, but he still wanted to pursue his passion of auto mechanics. As a student of USU, La Bounty came in contact with the CPD and eventually brought up the idea of a technician’s creeper that would start him in the sitting position and lower him into a horizontal position so he can slide underneath the vehicle he is working on. LJ Wilde was on the student team that has worked on the technician’s creeper for La Bounty. During the design process, La Bounty would test out the creeper and make suggestions for improvements. Using only his arms, La Bounty can get from his chair to the creeper and flip the switch to lower the creeper from a sitting to a horizontal position. At the finish of the project’s building phase, La Bounty performed the creeper’s final demonstration. “The experience of seeing the reaction of spectators and especially the look on Albert’s face, as for the first time in so many years he maneuvered himself below a vehicle without the help of others, was second to none that I have experienced in my academic and professional careers,” Wilde said. Both devices have patents pending. Steve Hansen, research professor in USU’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, said after the assistive technology has been designed and built, the teams work toward bringing their product to a mass market through commercialization. “Both of these design projects were in response to specific needs of specific individuals, but when built it became apparent that both have application far beyond that original need,” Hansen said. While these projects were designed to meet the needs of aging individuals, the designs can be used for medicine and sports medicine applications, to aid the community as it ages and to help persons with different disabilities. Projects are created only after someone in the community demonstrates a need, and UATP coordinators need the public’s help in finding needs to fill. “We’ll try anything at least once,” Christensen said. More information on the UATP can be found on the

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<em>This is the first of a two-part series on the Center for Persons with Disabilities.</em>

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