Feb 14th 2017

Disabilities Take Flight When Accessibility Is Engineered

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Engineers launch specialized aircraft into the skies and pitch payloads into space. Did you also know that, as an engineer, you can give people wings too? Engineering accessibility helps people with disabilities fly in a space that most of us take for granted.

Without direct experience, it’s difficult to know exactly what obstacles people with disabilities face in everyday life, but pause for a moment and imagine how you would use your computer without hands? How about riding a bike when your balance isn’t good or your legs are too short? … and how would you surf the internet to read this blog post?

Engineering for Assistive Tech

Stephen Hawking’s Voice Synthesizer from 1999 (Science Museum London)

This is where assistive technology (AT) comes in — devices that help people with disabilities manage daily life. Probably the most famous and globally recognized is Stephen Hawking’s voice — a computer interface that powers his communication, allowing him to communicate with the world around him. Other examples of AT that you may see every day include customized grips for holding a toothbrush or spoon securely, walkers, wheelchairs and ramps for mobility and electronic solutions for computer access. All of these solutions require engineering input to bring them to life. Many of them also need volunteers and organizations bringing experts together with patients and their families.

Community Partner V-LINC

Collaboration often starts in the workplace. Companies offer skills, workforce and sometimes production capacity to give back to the community. This is true for Northrop Grumman which has a long history with assistive technology, starting with prosthetic limb research after World War II. V-LINC, an organization that designs and builds customized AT solutions, recently recognized NG Baltimore aerospace engineers as Partner of the Year for their volunteer work.

Based in Maryland, V-LINC is the merger of two groups, one of which started in 1982 with a former Westinghouse (and now Northrop Grumman) employee. The company influence continues, with employees forming one of the largest volunteer teams. Over the decades, they have worked on various V-LINC projects including bike modification clinics that get kids in the saddle, a mobility chariot to help a family exercise together and a seizure alarm for nighttime monitoring — all small engineering projects that make a huge impact on the families involved.

Workplace Buzz at FabLab

Within the workplace itself, the NG FabLab (Fabrication Laboratory) initiative at the Space Park campus in Redondo Beach, California, also connects company volunteers with AT. In January 2016, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems employees engineered a custom motorized easel for an artist. The engineers spent time with Raul Pizarro, whose muscular dystrophy limits mobility so he can work only in a small area. Volunteers took measurements and 3D scans to design a solution that would allow Pizarro to work once again on larger canvases. When completed, the system helped move the canvas so that Pizarro could execute the full scope of his dreams.

Engineering Accessibility With the Next Generation

Celebrating National Manufacturing Day by 3-D printing and assembling prosthetic hands for children around the world. (Northrop Grumman)

Northrop Grumman is also inspiring the next generation of engineers. A recent V-LINC project matched a Northrop Grumman volunteer with a college student team to learn about sensory processing disorders among autistic children and youth.

Another FabLab event in October, 2016 exposed middle-school students to engineering design for AT. Held in collaboration with the National Science Teachers Association, the students used 3D-printing technology to build components for prosthetic hands designed for the specialized needs of growing children. With all the exciting tech and equipment available at FabLab, not only did the students learn about AT but they also saw how cool it is to work as an engineer.

Low Tech Works Too

AT doesn’t always mean high tech; limited resources often require creative solutions and improvisation, something that engineers are good at. Last August, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems engineers brainstormed ideas for improving toilet access. Inspired by challenges faced by a Ugandan amputee and landmine survivor, they used their engineering know-how for solutions that make pit latrines more accessible. Prototypes included an ingenious portable seat that balances between crutches.

High tech or low tech — the common feature is that engineering solutions help people with disabilities to face daily life. Maybe next time you see your work soaring across the skies, imagine the excitement of using those same mad skillz to give someone else wings.

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