THINC: January 2021

by Denise Sullivan
HURLEYVILLE– How many tools do you pick up with your hands and use in daily life? Toothbrushes, washcloths, forks, spoons, cups, hair styling implements and writing utensils are a small number of gadgets that must be gripped in order to take care of oneself. Imagine not being able to hold kitchen devices for basic cooking or a paint brush for creating art for fulfillment, or, heaven forbid, a cell phone for communication.
For people who are not able to grasp these necessary tools, activities of daily living or enjoyment are either very limited, or they require adaptive equipment and / or the assistance of another person.
Adaptive equipment is any tool, device, or machine that is used to help with any task associated with daily living. Adaptive devices are generally used by people who have a short or long-term disability, but many devices are becoming commonplace in most homes.
Adaptive equipment doesn’t have to be complicated or fancy. A loop of rope tied to a door latch or a long-handled loofah that allows someone with limited reach to wash their entire bodies are examples that have become commonplace and are used by many.
Assistive devices can be created or purchased, so long as they achieve the end result of making tasks possible for people with disabilities. At the Technology Hub and Incubator (THINC), the design team is often asked by therapists at The Center for Discovery (TCFD) to improve upon or replicate a device that is commercially available, but its price is prohibitive or it is not the right fit for an individual. These were the presenting problems with the universal tool holder. An inexpensive but small silicone strap did not offer enough support for the hand or arm that lacked controlled movement. A more robust model with a vice-like gripper was overpriced, and would not withstand vigorous use. Poor quality in materials is a frequent complaint in reviews for adaptive tools or tool holders. The THINC team used design thinking, a human-centered approach to innovation—anchored in understanding customer’s needs, rapid prototyping, and generating creative ideas – and then analyzed the best elements of the most versatile devices and came up with the “Tool Grabber.”
The Tool Grabber allows for gross movement in a specific plane of movement, like using a paintbrush on an easel. It has an adjustable grip that molds into a child’s hand that has weak grasp or articulation. The vice clamp is lightweight and can grip just about any tool. It can be manufactured and possibly offered to the public for under $40, a bargain for a universal device compared to the average costs of adaptive equipment.
This design process took a considerable amount of time, and included lots of prototyping and testing. Sourcing the durable Velcro straps and lightweight plastic vice, and then preparing test models for tryouts and feedback can sometimes send a designer back to the drawing board. But imaging the delightful victory and sense of self-empowerment when a child feeds him or herself for the very first time. It is magical.