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Invention by LeTourneau University students changes disabled children's lives

By Christina Lane
Jan. 21, 2012 at 11 p.m.


There is a wheelchair-bound, disabled child in an orphanage in Guatemala who has been unable to get in and out of his wheelchair for most of his life. That has changed because of a device developed by LeTourneau University students.

"You take this kid who has strength, but he needed the opportunity to develop it," said LeTourneau University senior Andy Brauning. "Because of this, he can develop the strength to walk around. He will be able to participate in life, and not just be wheeled around in life."

LeTourneau University Assistant Professor Norman Reese and his students joined with Hope Haven International Ministries, which seeks to improve the living conditions of persons with disabilities in developing countries.

Students in LeTourneau's Frontier Wheelchairs Senior Design Project assisted Hope Haven by using their engineering design skills to make the wheelchairs better suited for disabled children and the terrain in which they live. Throughout the course of the fall semester, the team designed and built a prototype foot rest that offers improved adjustability, and they conducted testing and stress analysis to ensure durability.

The children in the Guatemalan orphanages had various disabilities, such as cystic fibrosis. Reese said a lot of children are born with disabilities, and many end up in orphanages because their parents don't know how to work with them.

Also, the terrain in the developing country is rough for children in wheelchairs. With cobblestone roads and no roads or sidewalks in some places, the wheelchairs must be built to survive rough use.

Hope Haven refurbishes and distributes wheelchairs, having provided more than 90,000 wheelchairs in 106 countries. Along with refurbishing chairs, the group has developed a robust chair for children called the KidChair. It is built from recycled plastic and metal tubing without any welding, which allows for easy assembly and repair in areas where welding expertise might not be available.

The manufacturers didn't have the engineering expertise to redesign the foot rest while keeping it to a minimal cost. That's where LeTourneau stepped in.

Brauning said the original foot rest on the wheelchairs was a single plate that could move up and down, but could not be adjusted any other way.

Brauning and his peers split the foot rest in half, creating two plates - one for each foot. Each plate can be tilted up and down, can be a different height adjusted for each leg, can move forward and backward and have the ability to swing outward to make it easier for children to get in and out of the wheelchairs. The cost for Hope Haven to manufacture the foot rest is estimated $5 to $10.

In December, Reese and the students took their prototype to Antigua, Guatemala, to review their wheelchair modifications with Larry Jones, the production supervisor of the Hope Haven factory that makes the wheelchairs.

They also visited Guatemalan orphanages, testing their prototype on the wheelchairs of disabled children. They intend to make modifications to the prototype and return to the country in the spring.

"There was one boy who was able to work it on his own," Brauning said, adding that the child was able to swing the foot rests out of the way to get in and out of his wheelchair. "He has the potential to use the chair on his own, whereas (before) he was being helped into it and out of it."

Reese said the project taught his students about cultural sensitivity while working with the patients. For example, students learned they need to grind the corners off the foot rest and round them instead - something they wouldn't have realized without visiting the patients.

Their visit helped them notice improvements they could make to the prototype. Now, the students are working to make those improvements as well as creating an instruction booklet on how to make the foot rest, Reese said.

Brauning, who intends to pursue a career in the missions field, said the experience showed him that hard work pays off.

"We saw the end result. We saw it carried through," he said. "We saw this boy being able to use this by himself. I realized it will work."

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