In a longstanding tradition at Philadelphia University, dozens of occupational therapy and industrial design students took part in the Assistive Tech Collaboration presentation in the Kanbar Performance Space on April 21, showcasing their innovative designs to help clients with special needs.
“Nexus Learning is all about collaborative and real-life experiences,” said Monique Chabot, assistant professor in the M.S. in occupational therapy program. “This project embodies these values.”
The semester-long project requires high levels of communication and teamwork, which helps the students develop these skills while also defining their own roles and professional identities, she said. “In addition, the students from both groups find great value in having a real person to design for, who can test the devices and provide feedback. It increases the level of investment in the project for sure.”
Occupational therapy student Pooja Joshi and industrial design student Max Munao worked with 13-year-old Anna. She was born with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease type 2A, a condition that affects her peripheral nerves and causes weakness in her hands. As a result, she has difficulties with some basic tasks, including tying her hair into a ponytail. They created a device that allows her to use her stronger torso and biceps to put her hair back.
“After completing this project, I have gained perspective on how something so small, like tying my hair into a ponytail, could mean so much to someone else,” Joshi said. “This project really helped me solidify an OT’s role and how important OTs really are.”
Munao described the experience of working with Anna as “powerful.” “Her input gave me validation of my concept,” he said.
Industrial design student Michael Grosso and occupational therapy student Laura Cannon created the assistive device called the Stair Server—an adapted sliding tray mechanism custom made for an existing product, the Stair Steady. Their 69-year-old client, Connie, has limitations with stairs due to osteoarthritis and spinal stenosis. She enjoys eating her meals with her husband in front of the TV on another level of the house, but this poses a safety concern as she attempts to navigate the different floors with plates and drinks in hand.
The Stair Server lets her carry meals up and down the steps while holding onto the bar of the Stair Steady, Cannon said. This allows her to support her weight, protect her joints and conserve her energy, as well as assists with balance and proper body mechanics without the added juggling of handling other items.
“This collaborative project really merged the two disciplines together,” Cannon said. “The initial idea behind it was from an occupational therapy standpoint in finding a way to allow our client to continue her preferred activities intrinsically tied to her roles and routines that she holds dear. The mechanical aspects, logistics and poster design layout come from an industrial design standpoint and factor in universal design principles. It was a great opportunity to learn from each other.”
Some of the other projects on display included a violin platform shoulder rest for injured or older musicians to allow the neck to be in a less painful position; a motorized scooter positioning seat to help prevent people from sliding out of their seat and make it less fatiguing to sit in their mobility device; and a safer bed-making system for people with limited mobility.
Chabot said the Assistive Tech Collaboration, now in its 18th year, gives occupational therapy students the opportunity to explain their profession and scope of practice to another group, learn to advocate for clients’ needs and introduce them to a design profession they may never have interacted with otherwise.
“Every year, the OT students marvel at the creativity of the industrial design students and get excited to see their ideas come to life,” she said. “From the industrial design side, they learn about the unique perspectives and contributions of an OT to designs and leave the project with a greater understanding of how their designs and products can have a profound effect on someone’s life. This is one of the projects and events that makes PhilaU truly unique. The students should be proud of what they have accomplished this semester.”