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Give and Take

Give and Takeassistive technology program benefits both disabled and students who design devices to help themIn the 1980s, senior engineering projects at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell tended to involve the students’ personal “needs” — a bigger stereo or a better car alarm. Then in the early 1990s a request came from a local hospital to create a sip-and-puff pinball machine for quadriplegic children.
Dr. Donn Clark, who was in charge of the senior “capstone projects,” which are required for graduation, leapt at the opportunity to offer students an assistive technology project, having seen enough of their high-powered audio systems. He immediately suggested the project to two students who agreed to do it. One of the hospital’s requirements was that they visit the hospital and meet the children who would benefit from their device.
The UMass students were intensely motivated when they interacted with the youngsters. The only problem: They didn’t complete the project.
They did graduate, however. Clark thought he would never see them again, and concluded the plan had failed. He was wrong.
“Those students got so upset with themselves because they didn’t help those kids, that they came back after graduation and finished the project.” Moreover, Clark and his students presented the games to the hospital and watched kids play for the first time. “One of those seniors ended up taking a job with an assistive technology business,” Clark says.
That experience convinced Clark to create the Assistive Technology Program at UMass-Lowell, which has received grants totaling $191,000 from the National Science Foundation. They also have an endowment from an alumnus with matching funds from the state totaling $400,000.
“Initially we had to beg, borrow and steal to support it,” Clark says, adding that materials were the major expense. “But then we found that local businesses were very willing to support us. Occasionally the companies asked the students to design a device for one of their employees who had been in an accident or for a worker’s child.”
UMass-Lowell is one of 20 universities with assistive technology programs. Clark, who retired from the faculty this spring but will remain as director of the program for a year, says the students’ projects improve the lives of people with various physical and mental challenges. The products range from the simple to the cutting-edge. Alzheimer’s patients struggling through the haze of daily living, children with muscular disorders who have never played with toys or games, and spinal injury patients seeking independent lifestyles are among those who have been assisted.
Staff engineer Alan Rux says the projects have become more sophisticated and highly customized over the years. “We’re in our second generation of voice-activated wheelchairs, and we’re working on some eye-muscle control [devices],” which allows clients to raise their eyebrows to trigger a scanner to turn on the television or operate appliances.
The students work with the Franciscan Children’s Hospital in Boston, modifying and customizing toys for the patients. They are also involved in a project at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass. There, the student-engineers have inserted sensors in the childrens’ shoes to reduce falls and injuries. The sensors cause a vibration when an object is in front of or on the side of the child.
For Walter McGuire, assistive technology was the challenge he was seeking as a graduate student at UMass-Lowell, “but some of the projects seemed a bit repetitive. I was looking for something more far-reaching. When Dr. Clark presented me with the idea of making a wheelchair operated by voice, it piqued my interest.”
McGuire won the 1999 Student Design Competition sponsored by the Rehabilitative Engineers Society of North America, and he made a new friend — the client for whom he developed a prototype wheelchair that uses Digital Signal Processing technology. McGuire, who is now an engineer with Analog Devices in Wilmington, Mass., says the program was life altering. As he worked on his project and others for people with special needs, he benefited technologically and personally. Career-wise, his research led to the work he now does, using Digital Signal Processing to solve analog problems at Analog Devices.
And on the personal side, he says, “I made great friendships with people I never would have gotten to know otherwise.” Those friendships have changed his life. “I was a kid who never wore seat belts. Then I met a couple of people who had been injured in car accidents. One man, in particular, whose wife has to use a device to hoist him into the bathtub, told me his injury would have been prevented if he had been wearing a seat belt. I decided it was time to change.”
McGuire sits on an advisory board at the university and says he is interested in mentoring engineering students who want to work in assistive technology. But he says the program doesn’t go far enough. “It needs to be broader,” he suggests, “to reach more people.”  He would like to see an added component that would allow students to patent and market their products — a process that is too cost-prohibitive for most students.
Clark also would like to see more challenged people assisted. He says that can happen if universities develop their own programs and make their services available in their communities. “These programs encourage deliverables. Rather than sitting in a pie-in-the-sky lab, students can create something to make people’s lives better.
“It’s more than about technology,” he says. “It’s about helping students grow and mature. Some of them would go through their whole lives and if they didn’t have this experience, they would walk across the street every time they see somebody in a wheelchair.”
McGuire was on his way to becoming one of those students. He says he was “warned against” getting involved with Clark’s program for just that reason. “Some students actually advised me to stay away from it because they said you have to get involved with the clients, and they’re depending on you.”
Clark says that’s what those first two seniors realized when they designed that pinball game 10 years ago. “You can’t walk away.”
— By Pearl Stewart


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