MacGyver me this! Engineers and tradespeople volunteer to adapt household tools and technology for people with disabilities

Written by Cherise Letson

April 15, 2014

The kids can see pavement again – and they are raring to go. After a too-long-winter, kids are grabbing their gear – bikes, balls, skipping ropes and skateboards – and heading outside. Except the kids who can’t – and that’s when the Tetra Society moves in. You’ve probably never heard of the Tetra Society – I hadn’t – but this nation-wide group of volunteers is helping people with disabilities modify everyday equipment and make it easier to use.

Technology’s ability to improve life for people with disabilities has been making headlines this week as we commemorate the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing and the running of the 2014 Boston Marathon on April 21st. The advances in prosthetics has been rightfully praised for helping people who lost limbs in the bombing regain their mobility. Read between the lines and another story emerges: that living with a disability requires many modifications to a wide selection of everyday tools and processes. It’s about reengineering life.

The Tetra Society helps people with disabilities do that. “Basically, [our volunteers are] anybody that has a technical mind and likes to tinker and make things,” said Christine Plourde, the president of the society’s Fredericton – and only New Brunswick – chapter. “They could be engineers,  technologists, industrial mechanics or somebody that has shop in their basement that likes to make stuff.”

The chapter’s seven volunteers have helped develop both low-tech and high-tech devices. For instance, on the low-tech end, they’ve adapted baby tubs by building a

A modified baby tub.

A modified baby tub.

portable stand for parents who aren’t able to either bend over the bathroom tub or stand next to the kitchen table, and added supportive straps to children’s sleds. On the high-tech side, they’ve built adaptive switches to enable people with disabilities to use electronic products. For instance, they adapted an electric toy car to enable a child with disabilities to drive it.

“Usually when we get a project, it’s an idea that somebody has themselves, but they may not have the technical knowledge to bring it to fruition, so they need some help,” Plourde says. “So that’s what our volunteers are there too do.” The volunteers donate their time to help design and put together the device. The only cost to clients is the materials needed.

Sometimes that means reaching out to others for specialized work. Recently the group created a Boccia ramp with a lot of help from two groups of woodworkers (see featured image above). Boccia is a sport, similar to Bocce, that is played in over 50 countries by people with physical disabilities.  The ramp needed volunteers with both metal and woodworking experience. “A volunteer who works at Leo Hayes High School in the woodworking department, so his students built the wooden part. One of our volunteers is also a scout leader so he took the parts to his scout troop and had them put them together,” Plourde says. “It took three community organizations working for another community organization to help.”

Dan Gaudet, an NB Power engineer, joined Tetra because he likes to tinker around with stuff and because wanted to help people in his community. “We really get one-on-one with them to try to figure out what exactly how to address their needs. It’s a very fulfilling role to play in a group like ours,” he says,” he said.  “We really feel for the situations people are put into and it really motivates us to do more  We try to come up with solutions that are practical and that we can build ourselves – and then we make it happen.”

Click on the links to join the Fredericton chapter, start a chapter in your community or find out how Tetra Society volunteers can help you or someone you know.

Wicked Ideas writer Cherise Letson is a New Brunswick-based freelance writer. Follow what she’s got to say @CheriseLWrites

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