In Unique Collaboration, Occupational Therapy & Industrial Design Students Help Clients with Special Needs

OT student Halie Finke and ID student Jason Depenbrock created a new assistive device that will allow their client to use his communication device while lying down or sitting in different positions.

In the oldest continuously running transdisciplinary collaboration on East Falls Campus, the 18th annual Assistive Technology Collaboration presentation on April 6 paired dozens of occupational therapy and industrial design students together to show their innovative designs to help clients with special needs.

Working for client educators, the teams of first-year M.S. in occupational therapy students and third-year B.S. in industrial design students identified areas of need, found spots where adaptive and assistive devices can make everyday tasks easier, and created proposals for new devices that will help.

“The OT-ID project represents the type of unique collaboration that you find on our campus,” said Michael Leonard, dean of the School of Design and Engineering in the Kanbar College of Design, Engineering and Commerce, and the David and Lillian Rea Chair of Design and Engineering at Jefferson (Philadelphia University + Thomas Jefferson University).

Monique Chabot, assistant professor of occupational therapy, said her students benefit tremendously by working closely with the industrial design students and seeing the impact a well-designed device can have on someone’s life.

Julia Norkitis and Gaige DeHaven designed and built an ergonomically friendly cuff that allows their client with poor hand strength to remove and put on a compression sleeve independently.

“I also know that the client educators are thrilled every year to be a part of this project and to support the students’ learning on both sides,” she said.

In the Kanbar Performance Space, dozens of projects were display, including a chair that reacts and responds to the motions of a seizure to prevent the client from hurting herself, a passive, non-electromechanical device for hands-free door opening and a novel electronic controller system which uses the rear of the head against a surface to actuate.

Occupational therapy student Julia Norkitis and industrial design student Gaige DeHaven paired up with a client who has lymphedema (significant swelling) in her left arm. They designed and built an ergonomically friendly cuff that allowed their client with poor hand strength to remove and put on a compression sleeve independently.

“My partner’s knowledge about the pros and cons of using different materials complemented my knowledge of the kinematics of the human body,” said Norkitis, noting they came up with at least 50 different ideas for the one prototype. “Gaige thought of what types of clips would hold on to the compression sleeve fabric while I considered which clip materials would be most gentle on stretched skin. Instead of focusing on our own specialties, we taught each other along the way so we both have an understanding of industrial design and occupational therapy concepts. This type of collaboration allowed us to finish the semester as creators of a great prototype, but also as more well-rounded professionals.”

DeHaven, too, said he learned a great deal about occupational therapy and kinematics of the human body from Norkitis.

“Aside from the medical knowledge, I gained new insights in design by working with a new thermoplastic used for splints,” he said. “Similar to an OT, I learned how to take different parts from other products to build a functioning prototype. I’m excited to know that our adjustable sleeve assist will help our client be more independent in her daily life. This project allowed me to develop a personal relationship with my client by creating a custom product for her specific needs.”

Industrial design student Sean Cassidy also said helping a real person and not just dealing with a hypothetical situation made the project particularly beneficial. “She was someone I could connect with,” he said.

Cassidy partnered with occupational therapy student Jaclyn Bonner to work with a client with a rare genetic disorder, which caused impairments in her mental and motor skills and sight. In addition, she can’t communicate verbally. They created an assistive device that will enable her to communicate via an assistive touch application on an iPad.

During the project, Bonner said she improved her consultation and collaborative abilities when discussing the client’s needs with her mother, as well as strengthened her inter-professional and communication skills.

“Throughout this process, I learned that OT and ID have similar values—each wants to benefit the client’s quality of life,” she said. “This common value was the core that my ID partner and I used when developing the product for our client. When discussing different routes and possibilities, we frequently went back to the questions, ‘What is functional for our client?’ and ‘What will allow her to participate fully in social participation?’ which is the occupation she values the most.”