Transdisciplinary Project Puts Children with Special Needs in the Driver’s Seat

Six-year-old Tyrese takes the lead in his special car modified to fit his needs and abilities.

Start your engines! The sounds of racing tires and cheers filled the Kanbar patio on a picture-perfect May morning, as a handful of young kids with special needs visited East Falls Campus to try out their unique ride-on cars.

In the transdisciplinary project, a team of students from Jefferson’s physical therapy, occupational therapy, industrial design and engineering programs worked together to assess the children’s needs and deconstruct and refine the off-the-shelf toys.

For example, 6-year-old Tyrese has cerebral palsy and lacks the muscle strength to use his foot to push a traditional gas pedal. Among the changes, the students bolstered and added more support to his seat and modified the steering wheel, so he just needs to push the big red button at its center to set it in motion.

He quickly embraced his new car, which sported a “Tyrese” license plate in the back. His grandfather, Willie Jones, proudly videoed him as he zoomed up the walkway toward the DEC Center, and his mom, Sharisse Jones, shouted words of encouragement as he zipped past the finish line.

“There’s so much joy,” Jones says. “My grandson has come a long way—a long, long way.”

This year’s iteration expanded on the successful 2018 car-build program where Jefferson students worked with just one child. For this project—a partnership with Easterseals of Southeastern PA and sponsored by Comcast—three children received specialized vehicles to fit their needs and abilities.

“We have cars that we use at Easterseals with our students, but we’re not in a position that we could build cars for them to use at home,” explains Sarah Garman, a PT with the nonprofit and former student of Stephanie Muth, PT professor at Jefferson.

After learning about last year’s project, Garman reconnected with Muth and the two discussed how they could create a larger event to benefit more families of children with special needs.

“We figured this would be a great opportunity,” Muth says. “They have the kids who need cars, and we have the know-how and interdisciplinary team. It’s an awesome project, and you get to see students work together for a great cause. It’s my mission as a PT and a mom to optimize kids’ experiences in this world. This project just ticks so many boxes.”

Two weeks before the Car Celebration on May 17, which featured “races,” as well as arts and crafts and a sensory table, the team of 18 students visited the Comcast Technology Center to brainstorm and tinker with Comcast engineers and technologists and meet the children.

The intense, all-hands-on-deck build day proved invaluable, allowing the students to learn from each other and share their skills, says Eric Schneider, industrial design professor at Jefferson.

“The ID students would ask, ‘Can we wrap the padding this way?’ and the OT and PT students would say, ‘No, that’s not going to be firm enough. Could we do something to give them some more support?’” he shares. “We had a lot of interaction like that, and we also encouraged the PT and OT students to get involved in building things even though it’s not their specialty. They were cutting and sawing alongside the ID and engineering students.”

While OT student Brooke Haden has worked with ID students before, this event marked the first time she collaborated with engineering and PT, she says. “It was eye-opening to see what everyone brought to the table. It was honestly one of the best experiences I’ve had at Jefferson.”

Doctor of physical therapy student Sherilyn Alcantara, who plans to specialize in pediatrics, loved the chance to develop a connection with her young patients, help them socialize with others and ease them out of their comfort zone.

She worked closely with 4-year-old Ariel, who has cerebral palsy. As part of the construction process, Alcantara ensured that the seat fit properly with extra back support.

“Once we built the car, Ariel’s face just lit up,” Alacantra says. “It’s beautiful.”

Ariel’s mom, Jasmine Kinglee, says her always-motivated daughter constantly wants to learn new things, and she loved the chance for her to explore a bit of campus in the four-wheeler.

“She was so thrilled that she didn’t want to get out,” Kinglee says.

Calling the day “moving and inspiring,” Muth says the transdisciplinary and multi-institutional project highlights the powerful work done at Jefferson and believes it can serve as a model to build on.

Tony Sanchez, Comcast’s VP of operations for the customer experience product team, says the car build helps to stress the importance of accessibility and inclusion and sees potential to grow the collaboration.

“The chance to partner on this was just tremendous,” he says. “We’re really happy to see how the kids benefited today.”

PT, OT, ID and engineering students worked together to assess 4-year-old Ariel’s needs and deconstruct and refine the off-the-shelf car.