Real Intelligent Design
Assistive technology empowers people to lead fuller lives, and students at the Boston School of Occupational Therapy at Tufts are contributing unique ideas to the field.
Problem: A girl with cerebral palsy needs to feed her farm animals. Solution? A little Yankee ingenuity, elbow grease and a thrifty budget yielded the ingenious answer: a catapult.
As long as there have been problems in need of solving, Molly Campbell says assistive technology has been around. "If you can’t do something and you want to, you figure out how to do it," asserts the co-instructor for the assistive technology class at the Boston School of Occupational Therapy (BSOT) at Tufts. "Whether you’re in Afghanistan or Los Angeles, whether it’s 1920 or 2006, people everywhere are taking what they have in their surroundings and they’re figuring out ways to do the work."
From the first set of crutches that allowed a person to walk with a broken leg to the current voice-recognition technology that allows people to type without hands, assistive technology has helped people adapt to difficult life circumstances.
According to Jennifer Buxton (AG'03), Campbell’s co-instructor and one-time student in Campbell's class, assistive technology is not limited to addressing day-to-day functions.
"It may be helping [a patient] to be able to do something recreational again," she says. "We're very interested in roles, whether that's mother, sister, student, computer geek or staying home by the fire and knitting—how people define themselves, and how this technology can help people redefine themselves."
"Sometimes there's a unique individual in a unique situation," adds Campbell. "Nobody else may need that same device, but there's a balance between finding something that everybody can use and saying, 'That's not going to work; we're going to need something real specific for this particular challenge and this particular person.'"
It was this interpersonal aspect of assistive technology that initially attracted Campbell to the field. While working with individuals afflicted by cerebral palsy at United Cerebral Palsy of Metro Boston, she met patients who wanted a range of experience wider than what was physically available to them.
"Over and over again, different kinds of things would come up, and [the patients] were interested in problem-solving it and figuring it out," says Campbell. "So we used a lot of duct tape, regular cardboard boxes, scraps of wood, and you know, started really just… adapting things. And then, it was fun... you want to do more."
The BSOT at Tufts was the first school of occupational therapy in the country, and is one of the best-kept secrets at Tufts. Founded in 1918, it affiliated with Tufts in 1945 and is nestled behind Carmichael Hall on the Medford/Somerville campus.
As a department within the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, BSOT is comprised of more than 100 students and nearly 20 faculty, blending hands-on experience with a cross-disciplinary curriculum that draws from psychology, sociology, engineering, political science and other subjects.
Buxton and Campbell do not rely on textbooks; rather, they draw on their community connections—Campbell operates the assistive technology workshop at the Perkins School for the Blind in Cambridge, and Buxton works at the Assistive Technology Center (ATEC) at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston—to bring in guest speakers and take frequent field trips. Students are then commissioned to design and construct a piece of adaptive equipment for a community member by the end of the semester.
"The main person involved in the project is the person with the disability," says Buxton. "They're directing it, saying, 'This is what I need, and this is what I want,' rather than having us come in and say, 'This will work for you,' or 'Because this has worked for someone else, it will fit you, too.'"
The students—engineering undergraduates as well as BSOT graduate students—are encouraged to keep universal design concepts in mind as they construct the equipment.
"If you can make something that would clearly benefit a person with a disability, but would also make life a little nicer and simpler for people without disabilities, then you're not making that person stand out as being unique and needy," says Campbell, noting sidewalk ramps as adaptations that benefit both people in wheelchairs and the general public.
During the semester, Tufts students go out in groups of three to meet with a person in need, assessing the situation and beginning to design a piece of adaptive equipment to satisfy the individual's needs—typically with a surprising degree of economy.
When she first walked into the class, second-year BSOT student Megan De Long had not realized quite how simply she might accomplish the task at hand. In the end, she and her group, working within a $50 budget, did most of the design without buying new tools.
"We used the workshop some, but actually we built most of it in my kitchen," laughs De Long, who was teamed up with Deborah Regan. "All I needed was a hammer and a drill, and I have an electric screwdriver. We didn't even need a saw."
That kind of elegant efficiency—using available materials to craft solutions to complex problems—is one of the pillars of the class.
"The goal is to try to work as a team, to understand concepts of design and engineering, and individualizing the process," says Buxton.
The class has generated a slew of intriguing projects during the three years Buxton and Campbell have taught it together. One set of students modified kayak oars for a person who was hemiplegic, meaning that one side of their body was paralyzed. Another group came up with a "hug" chair—designed inflatable cushions, a pump and a belt—to allow autistic patients to sit and receive self-controlled deep, therapeutic pressure. Many groups have constructed chairs, tables and other devices out of materials as economical as cardboard.
This past fall, students worked in three separate groups. One group, of which De Long and Regan were members, constructed a sensory exploration center for two small children. The second crew designed a low-set chair to allow a disabled child to more easily play with other kids. The last group built a reclining laptop stand for a woman with cerebral palsy, as well as table risers to help her fit her electric wheelchair under the dining room table.
"That's pretty typical," Buxton observes. "We get the students in there and then the person will say, 'Well, while you're at it…'"
Buxton and Campbell were pleased with the results. "In general, Tufts students have been very curious and very intelligent and they get pretty interested in what they're doing," says Campbell. "I think they appreciate balancing some of the more theoretical classes with the more practical experiences that we're offering. I think that that's refreshing to them."
Beside learning lessons in collaboration, problem-solving and community outreach, the students also learn the power that assistive technology can have to improve a patient's quality of life. "I think for some people," says Regan, "when the assistive technology fits them and they're able to use it, and it's what they want, it's their lifeline."
Profiles written by Jessica McConnell, Class of 2006.
Jessica McConnell, a native of Hillsborough, NC, is a political science major and a communications and media studies minor. She wrote for the features section of The Tufts Daily throughout the spring of 2005, and worked last fall at the National Guardian Newspaper as an exchange student in Ghana, West Africa. This fall, Jessica played for the Tufts Women's Ultimate Frisbee team.
Homepage and Molly Campbell photos by Melody Ko, University Photographer. Jennifer Buxton photo by Rose Lincoln.
This story originally ran on Mar. 20, 2006.