National Awards Honor Student Inventors of Devices to Help People with Disablilities

What does a tricycle, an envelop stuffer and a neck brace have in common? These are technologies that won national awards for three student teams at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering. The devices were created as part of a biomedical engineering course called Devices for People with Disabilities.

The team of twins Shin Yeu Ong and Shin Rong Ong, and the team of Diana Hsu and Elizabeth Strautin Schwartz tied for first place in the NISH Workplace Technology Scholarship competition. NISH, formerly the National Industries for the Severely Handicapped, is a national nonprofit agency that provides technical assistance to community rehabilitation programs. Each team will receive a $2,000 scholarship.

The Ongs developed several envelope-stuffing devices for workers with cerebral palsy. Hsu/Schwartz developed a supportive head/neck brace that attaches to the wheelchair of a man with quadriplegia, improving his comfort and ability to interact with others.

Irene Tseng and Derek Juang were selected winners of the student design contest sponsored by RESNA (Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America). Their project was a shoulder-steered tricycle for a boy with TAR syndrome, which results in very short arm length.

"We are very proud of these students," said bioengineering professor Larry Bohs, who started the Devices for People with Disabilities course at Duke in 1996 with funding support from the National Science Foundation. To date, 15 student teams have won national awards for their technologies.

The course, taken by senior biomedical engineering students, gives students a chance to shepherd design ideas from paper to practical application, and to work face to face with the people who need the technology. In addition to creating a new device, students are required to write a technical paper, and encouraged to present their work at a conference.

Envelope Stuffing Aids

The envelope-stuffing devices developed by Shin Yeu and Shin Rong Ong, who are from Singapore, are now being used by employees of Orange Enterprises Inc., enabling them to increase both their productivity and salary. Orange Enterprises is a non-profit agency in Hillsborough, N.C., that employs people with disabilities and subcontracts services to other business for mailing and packaging.

After talking with Orange Enterprises’ employees and supervisors, the Ongs began brainstorming approaches that would minimize the need for carefully controlled hand movements and enable employees with compromised motor control to fill envelopes as quickly as possible.

"Working on a project requires you to function as a team, and that means you have to get to know each other. Well, we’ve already got that down," said Shin Yeu, sharing a laugh with her twin. "So it was very convenient for us to work on this project together."

The two said they worked between 10 to 15 hours a week on the project, and went through three cardboard prototypes before they identified a design that would work.

"Working with the clients and watching them use the prototypes was very rewarding," said Shin Rong. "We could see them using the designs, and see how the designs made it awkward."

For example, it became immediately obvious during the testing that the stuffing devices needed to weigh enough to remain stable on the worktable as workers pushed paper through, and needed to be easily reachable by someone in a wheelchair without requiring a lower table.

Eventually the team settled on a sturdy plywood base, and a metal aligning tray with a channel at one end to slip inside the envelope. The tray features lipped edges to ensure folded contents stay securely folded and thick loads stay aligned. The Ongs developed insertion devices for 10"x13", 9"x4", 9.5"x 12.75" and 9"x6" envelopes.

Most of the clients can easily slide paper down the tray and into the envelope, though some still require help from their supervisor or job coach. Some designs use a clip to secure the envelope to the insertion aid, or feature different shaped channels.

Both Ongs will graduate in May and plan to pursue graduate work in biomedical engineering.

Head and Neck Support

Hsu and Schwartz, who both graduated last May, developed a head and neck support for a man with quadruplegia. Hsu is from Raleigh, and Schwartz is from Mt. Olive, N.C.

Their goal was to help their client hold his head upright, something that had grown increasingly difficult in the 20 years since a car accident. As muscles weakened over time, his head leaned to his right side, causing severe back and neck pain, and preventing him from looking people in the eyes.

"Our client’s story of recovery following his accident and resulting life-threatening injuries was a huge inspiration to us in developing a device that would help him lead a more fulfilling life," said Schwartz.

The team’s initial design proposals were set aside when the client asked for more freedom of head movement. Working with their client’s therapists, Hsu and Schwartz eventually developed a brace that attached to the man’s wheelchair, and could be easily folded away when not in use.

The brace, with a padded and easily laundered headrest, supports the client’s head, and can be slowly adjusted to a full upright position over time as his muscles readjust. According to the therapist, the device will slow the degradation of the client’s neck muscles, make him more comfortable, and also make it possible for him to improve his communication with others by enabling him to maintain normal eye contact.

Shoulder-Steered Tricycle

Juang and Tseng’s project was to re-engineer a tricycle for a 5-year-old boy with TAR syndrome. He had no radii bones in his forearms, resulting in extremely short arm length, as well as limited arm movement and minimal strength in his fingers. But he was determined to ride his tricycle, and Juang and Tseng were determined to help him.

At first, the team simply lengthened the handlebars so that the boy could reach them, but he didn’t have the strength or maneuverability to turn the tricycle. The long handlebars also made it hard to get on and off, and the boy wanted to be able to use the tricycle by himself.

So Juang and Tseng broke the problem down into three systems: steering, mount/dismount, and pedaling. For the steering system, they built new handlebars that he could push on in order to steer, rather than the normal left to right movement of handlebars. However, because the handlebars reached all the way to the boy’s shoulders (to compensate for his extremely short arm length), he couldn’t easily get on and off the bike. So they engineered the handlebars to could telescope out of the way for mounting and dismounting.

Then the team modified the tricycle’s pedaling system to account for an issue of limited extension and strength in one of the boy’s legs. They shortened the crankshaft for the right pedal, and used a weighted wheel. The weights create a torque that helps the wheel move forward.

Juang and Tseng designed each tricycle system so that it can be easily adjusted to the boy’s needs as he grows physically stronger and more independent.

"The students worked hard and came up with a great design that really has made an impact on this boy’s life and on his family," said rehabilitation engineer Richard Goldberg, who teaches the spring semester Devices course at both Duke and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in conjunction with Duke’s Kevin Caves.

Irene Tseng is from Lawrenceville, N.J., and Derek Juang is from Poquoson, Va.

Rewards of Helping Others

Significant credit and thanks need to go to Joe Owen, the BME machinist, who helps students create their design prototypes, Bohs said. "His expertise often makes the difference between an amateur product and a professional product."

"Joe really connects with the value of these projects and offers the students design input as well as technical support," Bohs said.

The technologies students develop are given to their clients free of charge at the end of the class. Bohs and the other class instructors, Richard Goldberg and Kevin Caves, have developed working relationships with hospitals, rehabilitation clinics and various businesses in North Carolina to help identify new opportunities for students in the class.

Caves is a rehabilitation engineer and a clinical associate in the Department of Surgery at Duke. Goldberg is an adjunct assistant professor in Pratt’s Biomedical Engineering Department at Duke, and a research assistant professor in BME at UNC.

"At times we’re contacted by individuals or family members asking for help," Bohs said. "We consider those requests along with project ideas suggested by the health professionals we work with."

"I’ve seen this class change students’ career plans," said Bohs, who plans to expand the class size in the fall. "It’s a rewarding experience to make a difference in someone’s life."