Custom Design for Greater Independence

In the world of Rehab Engineering there is a balance of innovation and not reinventing the wheel.  When possible I implement solutions utilizing existing devices.  But sometimes, there just is not anything on the market that meets the needs of the client.  That is when the real fun begins! Custom design is when I get to put my engineer hat on and tap into my innovation skills.  Sometimes the solution is relatively low tech, and other times it is more complex.  In recent months I have gotten some great design challenges and had the opportunity to collaborate with some brilliant college students to create adapted equipment for recreation and academic supports.

  1. Adapted Guitar picks.

This is one of several adapted guitar picks that were created for middle school students with hand one handed limitations.  These students wanted to play a guitar, but holding and manipulating a standard guitar pick was not feasible.  I called upon the 3D design skills of a UNO Biomechanics student, and together we designed and printed several guitar picks – some that wrapped around a thumb & some with a ball shaped handle.  One student needed something more custom.  The result was attaching one of the 3D printed picks to a dowel that was set at a custom angle based on what worked best for the student.  And now there are 4 students who have musical equipment that matches their abilities!  I can’t wait for the Spring concert!


 2. Adapted musical instrument stand

One music loving girl needed an accessible way to play the triangle and go-go bells from her wheelchair.  Her arm strength and range of motion are limited, so the instruments need to be very close and in a specific position for her to access them.  This is one of those low tech solutions!  I created a pole out of PVC and used basic hardware to create mounting areas for the instruments.   We used a microphone stand to hold a the pole. The pole position can easily be adjusted and now she has access to both instruments allowing her to choose which she wants to play at what time.


3. Custom designed ergonomic T-stool

A t-stool is a seating device commonly used in therapies to work on balance and strength.  It is essentially a flat round seat attached to a pole.  Every model on the market only extends to a standard seated height of 19 inches.  This was creating some problems for music therapy students who were well over 6 feet tall!  The school requested a t-stool that extended to at least 22 inches.  We also decided that due to postural and strength challenges it would be beneficial to have a more ergonomic seat.  Part of my industry-academic partnership with Metro Community College is bringing their prototype design students into projects.  This was a perfect fit!  With some general design guidance from me, they created an ergonomic t-stool that extends to 24 inches.  It is comfortable, functional, stable and like nothing on the market!


4. Adapted Canoe Paddle

For someone who has one hand or arm that lacks some strength or mobility, independently paddling a canoe could be an insurmountable challenge.  We adapted a basic canoe paddle to have a more accessible and ergonomic handle that will accommodate the grip abilities of a range of students at a school here in Omaha, NE.  When it is camp time this Spring, everyone will have the opportunity to independently paddle their canoe!


5. Adapted archery system

Sometimes it is worth saving the best for last!  Archery is a favorite camp activity for many students that attend the Eastern NE 4H camp each Spring. But students with one handed limitations were not able to get the full experience because they could not participate without assistance.  They had to choose between holding the bow or drawing the arrow.  They wanted to do it by themselves!  It took considering several design concepts and a few visits to the Eastern NE 4H Camp, but the result is pretty dang awesome.

The rail will be mounted to a vertical post at the archery shelter (don’t worry – it is more than stable!).  The bow is mounted to plates that slide on the rail.  This makes it height adjustable so campers of various heights or in a seated position can have access to the system.  This system holds the bow stationary, allowing one handed access to drawing the arrow and independently participating in the archery fun!

The support of the Eastern NE 4H Camp has been amazing in this project.  They have accommodated my multiple site visits and allowed me to borrow the bow until the Spring.  And, they are excited to have the system permanently mounted at the camp for ALL campers.  To our knowledge, this will be the only outdoor camp in our area with an adapted archery station. 


We love being creative!  If you would like one of these solutions or have another custom project need to give someone in your life greater independence in the activities they love please contact us to learn more!

Understanding Impairment and the Human Experience in Space Design

The acronym “ADA” and the requirements (and detail oriented headaches!) that come along with all the requirements are well known among design professionals. But how often do we become complacent in just accepting that meeting the minimum requirements is “good enough”? This question has reaches far beyond the scope of space design, but for today we will limit this conversation to the impact on space design.

Unfortunately, where the ADA is concerned there are many times when the words “ accessibility” or “inclusion” elicit groans from professionals tasked with incorporating these concepts into their professional results. I get it, there are a lot of boxes to be checked.

Why are we so afraid to push the envelope in design?

I inherently believe that people are good and well intentioned. I do not believe that any design professional makes an intentional effort to create design that excludes members of our communities from being successful in the space.

I believe gaps in accessibility when it comes to space design are rooted in a lack of understanding.

What do we do when we have a knowledge gap? It is human nature to trend toward self-preservation, to fear the unknown and avoid situations where the outcome has potential for insult or embarrassment.

Gaining an understanding and being able to talk about impairments and disability experiences strengthens our professions and our communities. Two of the most impactful tidbits are:

  1. People have impairments and may experience disability. 

  2. The impairments and disabilities experienced may be temporary, permanent or situational.

    Photo Credit: Microsoft Accessibility Handbook

The question to address is how do our design choices accommodate each of these considerations?

Why is it important to go beyond the minimums of ADA requirements in design efforts in our communities?

Oh, the ADA. The guiding principles in compliant design. Don’t get me wrong, these mandates were a great first step to the greater vision of accessibility in our community spaces. However, compliance alone does not guarantee an optimal end result.

What if I told you that you could “check the ADA boxes” with less headaches if your design concepts intentionally went beyond the minimums mandated?

Should the professional perspective not be focused in Universal Design concepts? This results is a win-win for the designers and occupants of the designed spaces!

At any given time there are, on average, 20% of our community members with a reported disability. That equates to around 57 Million people nationally. With an increase in an understanding of the various impairments and the challenges various design features present, we can advocate for the least restrictive option. We can actively reduce the disability experienced in our community spaces. In addition, gaining knowledge in impairment and the language of disability gives greater confidence in exploring new design options and advocating for smarter design choices with your clients.

By doing this, you can help your client see the possibilities to expand their client/customer and employment base with a more functionally accessible physical space.

Design evolution that has resulted from the mandates of the ADA have ultimately resulted in design features we all benefit from, not just the individuals the mandate was designed to accommodate.

For example, ADA actuators. These resulted from an ADA mandate for creating equal opportunity for physical access to public spaces. As a mom of young kids, and a business owner who is always hauling arms full of stuff, my life would be infinitely more challenging without access to the automatic doors we take for granted. Have you ever tried to hold open a door and maneuver a clunky stroller through a doorway while holding the door open with an elbow, toe or whatever would reach? Replace the stroller with a cane, walker, wheelchair, rolling oxygen tank or any other element that is an extension of the individual wanting to access the space.

Additionally, I bet you haven’t given a second thought to the waist height counter area at retail, restaurant or other commercial areas where you set your bag, coffee mug or other items to complete your transaction. These spaces were part of the ADA mandated efforts to create equal access to retail/counter spaces in public environments. My point is we all benefit from smarter, more functional design choices.


Gender neutral bathroom design has become a greater focus in recent years. Why is this concept so impactful to a wide array of our community members? First, as a female, why are the lines to women’s restrooms always 10x longer to the men’s restrooms!? A gender neutral bathroom design would increase my access to a bathroom as needed. With regard to individuals with impairments, this concept can lead to increased inclusion in our communities. For a parent of a child of opposite gender who needs assistance, either for safety or physical assistance, a gender neutral bathroom design creates the opportunity for them to provide said assistance in an appropriate and dignified manner.

A mother of a 20 year old son once told me a story of having to repeatedly pop her head into the men’s restroom at a restaurant to check on her son for safety reasons. This is not dignified for the mother, son or other restaurant patrons.

If we integrate an understanding of impairment to the box of tools used in making design choices, as well as incorporate both Universal Design and Inclusive Design principles in each step of the process, the result is inherently more functional accessibility. These tools serve as a means for checks and balances as we work through the design phases – physical lay out, visual components and finishing selections.

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After all, isn’t that the goal of architectural and interior design – an enjoyable, visually pleasing space that is functional to use for ALL members of the community?

What a Rehab Engineer Brings to Your Village

We are excited to be partnering with Seniors Helping Seniors for a series of blogs to help educate and raise awareness of Assistive Technology, especially for families who have a loved one doing everything they can to remain safe and independent at home.

A Rehab Engineer is a great addition to the team supporting a family in these goals –  but many people do not have a clear understanding of what a Rehab Engineer is or what role we play in rounding out your “village”.

Check out our latest blog in the series we authored for them:

What a Rehab Engineer Brings to Your Village

Assistive Technology is Not What You Think it is.

We are excited to be partnering with Seniors Helping Seniors for a series of blogs to help educate and raise awareness of Assistive Technology, especially for families who have a loved one doing everything they can to remain safe and independent at home.  Many times Assistive Technology plays a significant role in achieving this goal – but many people do not have a clear understanding of what Assistive Technology is, or how it can help.

Check out the first blog in the series we authored for them:

A Sense of Independence Matters at Any Age

Tonight while I was watching my 4 year old get ready for bed, she unscrewed the lid from her water bottle, filled the bottle and replaced the lid. The look of elation on her face when she discovered she could reach the faucet and get herself a glass of water was so innocent and joyful. This applies to every new skill she learns. She was so ecstatic when she figured out how to use chopsticks to eat she used them for every meal for a week!

My two year old spends all day, every day, making it perfectly clear that she does not want help with ANYTHING. I mean, just check out the amount of attitude and determination on her face (see below)! In the morning there is no way she is accepting help with putting her pants on, brushing her teeth, eating her breakfast, putting her shoes or coat on. She insists on climbing in and out of her carseat, taking her shoes off and doing every other daily task as independently as possible. 20180330_075415.jpg

The sense of accomplishment witnessed on the face of a child when they get behind the wheel of a customized, accessible ride-on electric car and go where they want, in the path they want, how fast they want, is AMAZING. 20180227_115517

At the other end of the age spectrum and with the introduction of disability, my mother faced declines in her ability to move around the house and perform many daily tasks during her battle with cancer. She was frustrated when she could no longer do her own cooking and grocery shopping. She regained a little light in her week when she discovered online grocery shopping. And she was so grateful when we modified the home environment to accommodate her needs and enable her to navigate to the bathroom and take a shower on her own.

My friend’s mother is experiencing age related decline in her abilities to safely navigate around the house, use the bathroom and perform daily hygiene tasks. She refuses to rely on Assistive Technology and often resists help from family at this stage. She craves the ability to hold on to every last opportunity for independence.

Whether you are 4, 40 or 104, these seemingly small moments of independence matter. They matter A LOT.

Why should we expect that throughout stages of life, or experiences of impairment a person’s desire for independence in daily activities would lessen?

I know, as a caregiver it can be difficult to take a step back and just let things happen. We are protective about the people we love. When you take a step back, sometimes you witness a grand success and other times you are needed to come in to finish the process. But the key is that you first work to enable the person you care about in their attempts to be independent.

Whether through age, illness or other disabling events, the reality is that everyone yearns to maximize their current abilities and strives to achieve their goals. The presence of an impairment does not imply a decreased DESIRE to be independent in tasks, simply because they face new limitations to their abilities.

As a Rehab Engineer my job is to help people of all ages find solutions to their unique challenges with life’s activities; to help them find the customized solution that enables the pursuit of engagement and independence in the life activities that they desire.

The use of simple Assistive Technology solutions, like the ones in Sydney’s case can improve an individual’s ability to feel confident in their daily tasks and give them confidence to pursue hobbies and activities that give their life purpose. Understanding the person’s goals and abilities, as well as how to match a person’s abilities to AT solutions is essential for a comprehensive assessment and positive outcomes.

Sydney independently opening a can

Sometimes the biggest challenge for an individual or family is to know what possible solutions exist in the wide world of Assistive Technology. It can save time and financial resources to have an expert in AT assist in matching a person’s goals and abilities with the best AT solution.

Assistology has the expertise and passion to help empower individuals to reach their potential and gain unrestricted access to educational, vocational, recreational, home, and community activities.

Is there something you or a loved one wants to do with greater independence – give us a call!