By Tyler Horst
Huddled around a table, students flex and extend the fingers of a prosthetic hand. Watching the joints carefully with their trained eyes, they notice the fingers aren’t bending quite to the degree that they’d like, so it’s back to the drawing board. One student pulls a digital tablet toward herself and starts sketching a new design, which the group will be able to re-print in a matter of minutes.
Here in the Comcast Collaboration Studio, inside the Oxford Mills building in South Kensington, these students are participating in the Designing for Disability course. Since September, this group of Medical, Occupational Therapy, and Industrial Design students have been learning about the concept of human-centered design by putting it into practice.
“You can’t necessarily design something for someone with a disability without working with that person and understanding what their unique needs are and what it means to be them on a day-to-day basis,” explains Dr. Robert Pugliese, co-director of JeffDESIGN at Thomas Jefferson University and one of the facilitators for this course.
The products the students create are not just for show. Using 3D printers and other resources provided by the Comcast Collaboration Studio, they are building tools that will help 16-year-old Lariq Byrd get back to school.
Byrd became quadriplegic last December. He was an honor student, an athlete, and a poet. Now, it’s difficult for Byrd to do things that most take for granted.
“[I can’t do] stuff that you really wouldn’t second guess about, like breathing,” Byrd says. “Stuff that you wouldn’t think about losing in just a matter of seconds.”
Thanks to the Occupational Therapy Department at Jefferson and McGee Rehab Hospital, Byrd joined the Designing for Disability class and began working directly with the students on inventing new, custom-built tools just for him.
“Once Lariq became a part of the class, the complete energy of the room changed. Suddenly, it wasn’t that you were trying to solve a problem for somebody that you’ve never met and somebody you don’t know,” says Pugliese.
Kathryn Linder, a medical student at Jefferson, says her goal is to help Byrd write again. Byrd, who had planned to travel to Alabama to perform his poetry before the injury, told the class that he wants to get back to scribing by hand. Linder and her team are designing a brace for Byrd’s left hand that will help him do just that.
“When we’re thinking about solutions, it’s no longer just theoretical,” Linder says. “It’s, ‘How will this fit for Lariq? Is it the right color for Lariq?”
“Heck, we have all these 3D printers. If we’re going to print something, let’s make it his favorite color!” she adds.
Students in the Comcast Collaboration Studio are empowered to do things most won’t until well into their professional careers. Veeramechineni Mohan Kumar, an Industrial Design student from Philadelphia University, used a 3D printer for the first time in this studio.
“One of my favorite things about the Comcast Collaboration Studio is that it really just feels comfortable,” says Pugliese. “The environment in which you work has tremendous implications on the quality and type of work that you do.”
The work happening inside the studio isn’t just fostering the medical professionals of the future, but it’s also giving Byrd a chance to get back to some of the things he loves.
“I feel honored that I was chosen for this workshop and I will make use of whatever is made for me at the end,” Byrd says. “It’s not every day someone tells you, ‘We’re going to make something for you [that will change your life].’”