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Building a better backpack rack

Student design aims to boost wheelchair independence

Kent ISD — As his mom and others looked on, Knapp Forest Elementary fifth-grader Abe Vos scooted himself into a wheelchair fitted with something that may help him be a more independent middle-schooler next year.

Many wheelchair users cannot reach their belongings, such as backpacks, from the push handles or below-seat pouches without help. A partnership between Kent ISD and Grand Valley State University may result in a device that would give them that ability.

“From a momma who desperately wants to help her baby be more independent, this is like Christmas for me,” said Abe’s mother, Megan Vos. This was after watching her son reach over his left arm, grab a metal bar, perform a pull-push-pull motion, reach for his own backpack (monogrammed with his AXV initials), pull it onto his lap and dig through the contents for treasures Kent ISD physical therapist Michelle Gallery had planted inside.

Over one semester, five engineering students from Grand Valley State University came up with three concepts for wheelchair swivel-arm prototypes. They interviewed and observed wheelchair users and those who work with them. Then, they fabricated one device that integrated the strengths of the three concepts.

“My students are really excited they get to be a part of this whole process,” said Gallery, who has worked for more than a decade on various projects with John Farris, engineering professor at Grand Valley State University. “The idea is, it gives GVSU students real-life application of how they are going to use their skills, and our students the potential to have equipment that is manufactured for them.”

GVSU students who conceived, designed and fabricated wheelchair swivel-arm prototypes, from left, Austin Soeters, Cory Wyn, Nick Groeselak and Kayla Lett

‘A Step Toward Independence’

Abe, a young man of few words, was eager to get back to class, but his mom was excited to share what a difference the seemingly simple device could make.

“Middle-school and high-school kids are expected to keep their supplies in their lockers and just take what is needed for each class with them,” Vos explained. “But a kid like Abe, who needs his hands to wheel, will have to have a different system, since folders and books don’t stay on his lap while traveling the halls.

“Anytime you give him a step toward independence is a plus in my book.”

Vos pointed out that even the simplest devices are rarely a one-size-fits-all solution for wheelchair users and their caregivers, who have varying strength and movement challenges.

“That’s what’s so tricky about the wheelchair world: everything is so customized,” she said. For example, “we’re on about our tenth cup holder and we still haven’t nailed it.”

Gallery said pros and cons of Abe’s and others’ tests of the device will be shared with Farris’ future students, who may take up tweaks (called iterations, in the biz) to the current model. She said she is exploring the possibility that Forest Hills high-school industrial arts students or Kent Career Tech Center students may also contribute to a future project.

“(GVSU) students had a huge task in creating something that does not exist,” she said. “Regardless of potential improvements, this is a huge first step.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Kent ISD, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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