URI students engineer devices to help disabled woman start greeting card company

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KINGSTON, R.I. – August 16, 2011 – Rebecca Beaton’s desire to start a company to design and sell greeting cards just got a little easier, thanks to a team of engineering students at the University of Rhode Island.

The Warwick resident, who can only control the movement of her head and neck due to the effects of cerebral palsy, is being fitted with customized assistive devices designed by the URI students that will enable her to operate a computer, paint, draw and use an iPad and smart phone.

“Our goal was to make an interface for her so she can use these tools with her head,” said Chelsae Meier, a biomedical engineering major at URI and leader of the engineering team. “We wanted to improve the equipment that she had and give her more options for work and hobbies.”

The students created a lightweight helmet, starting with the innards of a firefighter’s helmet donated by the Kingston Fire Department, and attached a flexible copper rod that could be used as a pointer or could be adapted to grip a pencil, paintbrush or other tools.

“Rebecca has been great to work with, and she’s been extremely helpful with her feedback,” said Meier, a resident of Boscawen, N.H. “She is inspiring and really works hard. I can see that it can be exhausting working with your neck all day every day. That’s why we’ve had to be careful not to make the device too heavy.”

On a recent visit to West Bay Residential Services in Warwick, where Rebecca spends most days working at a computer, the students shared new designs and ideas for additional assistive devices and asked for Rebecca’s input, which she provided with great enthusiasm.

When the students saw how much they were helping Rebecca, they offered to design customized devices for other disabled individuals who visit West Bay Residential Services, including a wheelchair armrest, a keyboard overlay, and a modified headstick like the one designed for Rebecca.

“We’re delighted to have the students here,” said Penny Merris, the activities director at the facility. “The devices are really making a huge difference.”

The collaboration with the URI students got its start when Rebecca received a self-employment grant to start a greeting card company from Rhodes to Independence through the URI College of Pharmacy. Kathleen Samways, program manager for the R.I. Developmental Disabilities Council and an adjunct faculty member at the University, asked Biomedical Engineering Professor Ying Sun if he could recruit students to help make it easier for Rebecca to make the cards.

“I had an internship with an assistive device company in Barcelona, Spain, last year, and I worked to customize devices for people with various disabilities,” Meier said. “So when I heard about this opportunity with Rebecca, I knew it was right for me.”

Joining Meier on the project are students Christopher DeSanto of West Warwick, Gemma Downey of Rehoboth, Mass., Brooke McCarthy of Plympton, Mass., and Vanessa Landes, Christina Liese and Tanya Wang of Cranston. All are working as paid summer interns through the URI Biomedical Engineering Program.

A particular challenge for the students was designing a tip for Rebecca’s headstick that could be used to operate a touchscreen device like an iPad or smart phone. Those devices can only be manipulated by a conductive material – plastic doesn’t work – so they engineered the device using a special conductive foam.

“The flow of work with the team is pretty great,” Meier said, “because everyone is willing to help every day. We work independently on different elements and then we all get together to share our progress. It’s a great opportunity to put our skills to work to help people.”

Pictured above.

URI biomedical engineering student Chelsae Meier (left) works on an assistive device to help Rebecca Beaton (seated), who suffers from cerebral palsy, operate a computer and other equipment. Looking on are other students who worked on the project, Christina Liese, Tanya Wang, Vanessa Landes, and Christopher DeSanto. URI Department of Communications & Marketing photo by Michael Salerno Photography.