A little ingenuity brings easier computer access for a teen with a brain and muscle condition.
Dan Spelt is as computer savvy as any other 16-year-old who spends hours in front of a monitor. When he’s not surfing the Web or creating PowerPoint presentations he’s out-manoeuvring his dad when they play Flight Simulator. What’s different is that Spelt, born with cerebral palsy, uses his lips to work the keyboard. Typing is a demanding process, but he keeps at it until he finds the right combination of keys. For a long time, the lanky teen relied on a makeshift stack of books in order to raise the keyboard to a more comfortable level. But it was an awkward solution at best.
“Dan’s quite capable on the computer—he’s always exploring and sending me things he’s discovered—but he was moving his head up and down a lot to reach the keyboard,” says his granddad, John Nieboer. “I thought there must be a way to make it more useable, more accessible for him.”
That’s where UVATT came in. The University of Victoria Assistive Technology Team is a campus-wide collective of professors, students, staff and community members. Most of them volunteer time and skills to produce devices (45 and counting since 1999) that make life a little easier for people with special needs.
After Nieboer contacted UVATT, fourth-year Mechanical Engineering student Darcy Lane was asked to come up with a custom-designed keyboard stand. The first step was to meet with Spelt and his family in his home, and then at school. “It was important to see how high Dan’s head was above the desk since he uses his head for typing,” says Lane. “Dan is constantly moving to different classrooms and working on different surfaces so the design had to be lightweight and portable and able to sit on many different surfaces.”
Lane first created a computer-aided design of the stand, then sourced out the parts and manufactured the final product in the machine shop.” Once I was confident in the device, I brought it to Dan at his school and watched him test it in his working environment,” says Lane. “The design is a success and it works great.”
His young client agrees: “The keyboard tray has made it easier for me to do computer in different places,” says Spelt, writing in an e-mail. “It’s easier on my neck."
“The keyboard stand is very flexible,” says Spelt’s mother, Janice. “It adjusts to different heights of chairs and desks, which has been a real problem as Dan gets older and continues to grow.”
UVATT founder and Director Nigel Livingston says each new project “is a response to a community request. We get three to five requests a week. It’s nice, but it presents a bit of a problem. We don’t have the resources. The need is huge—many people need specialized devices.”
One way to meet demand may be through Inspired Devices Inc., a spin-off company created with the guidance of the UVic Innovation and Development Corporation. The company is trying to distribute UVATT’s products more widely and reinvest the revenues to create even more devices—and more stories like the one shared by Dan Spelt and Darcy Lane. “To be involved in this type of project is amazing,” says Lane. “Knowing that others are benefiting from my work in ways that dollars can’t describe is really rewarding.”
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