Power Mobility Project tests new device to give children in wheelchairs more independence

by Clémence Daniere, student writer

Grand Valley’s Power Mobility Project received a $150,000 grant to test devices that temporarily convert manual wheelchairs into power wheelchairs for children who have cerebral palsy.

The National Institute of Health and Human Development grant will help provide power mobility training to children and young people, ages 6 months to 26 years old, who aren’t typically considered candidates for that type of training. 

Lisa Kenyon, professor of physical therapy, said it gives wheelchair users more independence.

“I found throughout my career as a pediatric physical therapist that children who have severe disabilities are not given the opportunities to try power wheelchairs and, therefore, are denied access to their only way to move independently,” Kenyon said.

Kenyon works on the project with John Farris, professor of engineering, and Naomi Aldrich, associate professor of psychology.

young child in wheelchair with arm on device in front to control it; kid is wearing glasses and a red shirt
King, 6-years-old, explores the Shape Corp. Innovation Design Center, on the Pew Grand Rapids Campus, using the IndieTrainer.
Image credit - courtesy of Lisa Kenyon

Their research found that children with severe disabilities who are unable to self-propel manual wheelchairs do not get an equal chance to learn, develop skills or explore their world because of their dependence on others. In order to gain some independence through skill-building, Kenyon said, customized wheelchairs need to be converted into power wheelchairs. 

Along with researchers at Flint Rehabilitation in California and the Center of Discovery in New York, the Grand Valley team is testing the IndieTrainer system. 

The system has two parts: the mobility device that temporarily converts a manual wheelchair into a power wheelchair, and simple video-style games developed for children to learn specific power wheelchair skills. These two parts work together to optimize how a child learns to use a wheelchair, Kenyon said. 

“When children can’t move independently, they often become somewhat passive and dependent on others and they have to wait, so to speak, for the world to come to them rather than them being able to act on the world,” she said. “One of the ways that we can try to prevent that is through power wheelchair use.”

The IndieTrainer bridges the gap between manual and power wheelchairs, allowing children to gain a certain amount of independence and, ideally, the skills necessary to operate and qualify through insurance for their own power wheelchair in the future. 

“Hopefully we will find in our study that this device and system really help children to learn power wheelchair skills and we will be able to go onto a larger-scale trial,” said Kenyon, “Our goal is to help as many children as we can.”


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