UD grad students help children with disabilities be more independent

Work being done at University of Delaware’s STAR campus will help children with mobility impairments by creating assistive technologies or clothing with sensors to increase a disabled child’s mobility.

“We do wearable technology, we do different kinds of devices and clothing with devices embedded in them all to help kids with disabilities,” said Martha Hall, a graduate student in the biomechanics and science program.

Hall is working closely with a 14 year old with cerebral palsy during her dissertation study to design unique jeans that will ultimately help children with disabilities be more independent.

“Cerebral palsy in particular … that can look very different depending on the child and depending on the severity of the presentation. But for a lot of the kids it may be challenges with range of motion so like you can’t quite get your ankle pointed in order to get your foot through your pant leg,” Hall said.

Children may also be challenged by closures like snaps, button or zippers.

“The dissertation project is all about creating clothing for people who are a little bit older than the typical kids that we work with at the lab, so kids age 5-14. When you start to care a little bit more about how you look and want to fit in with your peers a little bit more creating clothing that they can get easily in and out of on their own,” Hall said.

Research for this type of clothing all takes place inside the Move to Learn Innovation Lab located on the University of Delaware’s STAR campus.

“We’ve worked with children that have a broad range of disabilities. The most common one that I’ve personally worked with is called arthrogryposis which means curvature of the joints,” said Ben Greenspan, a graduate student with a similar interest. “The child is fine mentally, but they really have a difficult time lifting their arms up. So we’ve worked on creating devices that make it easier for them to put their hands in front of their face which allows them to make connections with the outside world and when they’re playing with things,” Greenspan said.

Grant money is definitely important to this lab. The National Science Foundation recently awarded money to allow students to work on a smart compression garment that they hope will translate into a user controlled powered exoskeleton.

“And that’s on definitely the larger side of funding, but also it’s really nice with this huge push for open source electronics. A lot of the sensors and microcontrollers and things of that nature that previously wouldn’t have been affordable in years past are much, much more accessible to purchase on the internet now,” Greenspan said.

Meanwhile what goes on in lab could eventually get the attention of some retail giants.

“Target just recently started to be interested in designing or providing clothing for kids with special needs. So they just released a line for children with autism so things that don’t have tags that can irritate the skin or seams in places that could bother a child,” Hall said.

Committee members on Hall’s dissertation have developed a relationship with Target so there’s is some potential work that could be possible in the near future.

“If we could help to create clothing for kids and have it distributed through an amazing company like Target that would just make it even more available and even more accessible which is at the end of the day our goal,” Hall said.

In addition to grant money from the National Science Foundation which totaled more than a million dollars for the project, supporters include partners from the University of Minnesota, Virginia Tech as well as donations from the community and grants from the Delaware Economic Development Office and the University of Delaware Research Foundation.

During the four year project, team members will continue to work on developing soft, low-profile sensing technologies that look and feel like everyday clothing. What’s unique is the clothing will feature shape-memory fibers to assist with limb movements.

Graduate students are also looking to recruit healthy, young babies around 0-5 months to continue work on comfortable clothing with sensors that track the activity of a baby for a project called the Get Around Garment. Officials say early movement and play in children truly impacts future development.

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