DIY: Access Hacks project

For the second year in a row, I thought of the wheelchair modification and disability access projects that could and should be at Maker Faire. I’d like to make that happen next year.

At Maker Faire this year, I talked with Miguel Valenzuela, who was showing Lift Assist, a toilet lift device that can be built for $150 out of bits of PVC and junk from a hardware store, powered hydraulically from your own water system. That kind of thing costs thousands of dollars if you buy it as a medical device. If it were a DIY kit, and if it had open source plans and instructions up on the web, it could be useful to thousands of people all over the world.

So I got to thinking. Who would I even hook Miguel up with, to get his plans used? What other projects are spreading disability access devices, open source? Could things like this just be given over to an organization like Engineers Without Borders? How can they be open sourced or copylefted? Who’s collecting that information? Certainly not the U.N. committees on disability – ha!

There are specific projects like Whirlwind Wheelchair International and its design for the Rough Rider chair, developed by Ralf Hotchkiss and students over many years and meant to be distributed to shops or factories or organizations in developing nations. In other words, partnership with actual manufacturers. There’s the Free Wheelchair Mission which has a kit to build wheelchairs for under $50. They seem to take donations and then ship a giant crate of wheelchair kits to somewhere in the world. Those both look great. But neither of them were for a disabled person who might want to build their own stuff.

Then I found some nifty sites like Marty’s Gearability blog, which has a DIY category for “Life with limitations and the gear that makes things work”. She has made dozens of posts on modifications she’s made for her dad, who uses a wheelchair. I especially enjoyed the how-to for a wheelchair cup holder and the elegant, blindingly useful offset hinges to widen doorways.

I’m also somewhat familiar with Adafruit Industries and its projects like SpokePOV. What if assistive devices used something closer to this model? Rather than people patenting, and trying to sell their designs to a medical supply company, which marks it up a million times until disabled people in the U.S. can’t afford them unless they have insurance or can wait 5 years and fight a legal battle with Medicare.

I found organizations like Remap in the UK, that takes applications from individual disabled people, and hooks them up with an engineer who will build them a custom device. This I think exemplifies the well meaning but ill advised attempts to help disabled people through a “charity” model rather than through widespread empowerment. If an engineer is donating time and an invention, why not have them write up and donate the plans for whatever they are building, and post the DIY instructions for free? Then, thousands of people all over the world could build that invention for themselves.

Here’s another data-sucking black hole of information that should be out there on the beautiful, wild, free internet: academia. This paper on bamboo wheelchair designs is probably super great, but who knows? Only the libraries who have the bound copy of the conference proceedings of the 5th international bamboo conference back in 2002. This makes me very, very sad. OneSwitch, on the other hand, has the right idea. It’s a compendium of DIY electronics projects to build assistive devices. Perfect!

Meanwhile, I went looking for the latest news in open source hardware. What’s up with the Open Source Hardware License?

My own inventions for assistive devices have tended towards the creative yet slapdash use of duct tape. For example, my Duct Tape Crutch Pockets, an idea easily adaptable to small pouches for forearm crutches and canes, or to get more storage space onto your wheelchair.

My own canes and crutches that fold (with internal bungee cords) could use simple velcro closure straps to keep them folded up while they’re in my backpack or in the car. There are some ingenious ways, also, to attach canes or crutches to a wheelchair.

I have thought of, but not made, ways to extend storage space further. For example, I think that the lack of pockets in women’s clothing is a political issue. Women’s clothes are mostly designed without pockets, because of cultural pressure to look skinny, so women end up encumbered by bags and purses. If you think about how wheelchairs are made, it is interesting that they are assumed not to need storage space, cup holders, things like that. People hang little backpacks off their chairs. And there are a few custom made pouches for walkers, crutches, and wheelchairs, like this thin armrest pouch. You won’t find them in an actual wheelchair store – and rarely in a drugstore or medical supply house. Why not?

As wheelchair designs continue to evolve, I hope that manufacturers will create customizable backs and sides and seats. Nylon webbing with d-rings, sewn into the backs and under the seats of wheelchairs, would mean that custom pouches and packs could clip onto a chair. Then it would be easy to set up your chair with interchangeable bits. My laptop could go in a pouch under the seat, for example, so that it wouldn’t affect my center of gravity so drastically as it hangs off the seat back in a backpack.

I’d like to see more and more mods for chairs and canes and crutches that are just for fun. The little holes in adjustable-height, hollow metal walking canes — don’t they seem like the perfect size to stick an LED light in there?

Also, meanwhile, I had posted briefly the other day for Blogging Against Disablism Day 2008 with a list of ideas for Practical actions that will help, like smoothing out steps into a small business (ie just freaking pour some asphalt in there or build a wooden wedge even if it is not exactly to code; people do nothing, for fear of being sued, rather than spend thousands to do a to-code ramp, and I’d rather they just stuff in a slope and bolt a rail to the wall than do nothing!). After I made the list, I went looking for online instructions on how to do the things I was suggesting. What did I come up with ? Jack shit! Nothing! Nada!

So, here’s what I propose we do:

– Compile free and open source how-tos, plans, designs, etc. on Disapedia. I have made a page for DIY equipment.

– I will go and interview Hotchkiss and his class, and write up more detail on how their open source project works.

– A meeting to share access hacks and start to add to that wiki page on Disape

– I’ll head up an effort to organize a really good disability/accessibility hacking booth for Maker Faire next year.

For the Access Hacks booth, I’d like to pull in:
– craft/sewing people for stuff like mobility device storage and mods with velcro and fabric
– metal working people
– electronics people (like the OneSwitch folks)
– Maybe invite Tech Shop and the Bay Area wheelchair stores to participate
– obviously, disabled crafty/makery people. I thought I could try to pull in GimpGirl and put the word out in other communities
– Flyers on how to open source your hack and make it free – license info, where to post, hook up with places like WikiHow.

This could make a super fantastic real life application for hardware/craft hacks. I would love to just hang out all weekend with a bunch of other people with disabilities and share whatever hacks we’ve already come up with. That in itself would be productive without even doing it at Maker Faire. I’d like an Access Hacks meeting around here and I wonder if people would host them elsewhere and then post tips on Disapedia. (I would like to use them rather than host a new wiki, but I’m willing to make an access hacks wiki if that’s what people would like.)

Please, leave feedback in the comments.

11 thoughts on “DIY: Access Hacks project”

  1. We’ve had a coupla crafty PTs who could make pretty much anything for positioning my son, from a block of foam and using an electric knife. Maybe find some folks like that–a lot of folks who work with little kids are accustomed to making custom supports and whatnot.

    In the same vein, there seem to be a lot of moms who sew for their kids’ particular needs–and some of them post patterns on their blogs. I’d gladly scan around in that region of the blogosphere for some free how-tos and other tutorials for you. (A lot of the projects would be designed for disabled kids, but I assume further adaptations would serve a wider audience.)

  2. Great piece over at Disapedia. I put up some links over at my blog and will keep this project in mind because it’s really really important and needed. Thank you Liz for your work on this.

  3. Where to begin? I think an Access Hacks collection somewhere is a great idea, and one whose time has come. Help that enables self-reliance is a great sort of help to give. I don’t have much experience designing for disabilities, but I do know a few things about dreaming up, making, and documenting hacks in the physical world, so please nudge me now and then if I can lend a hand. Since those asking for designs are often the best experts on what they need, a request list such as wikiHow’s might easily become a “problem statement” page to start discussions about adapting environments and tools. The problems might be explicit (I want to carry my book and my crutches at once) or more general (crutches mean both hands are full). The latter sort might prompt discussions of more specific design goals.

    I think you’re exactly right about making the designs themselves available to those who need them, not only so that they can use them but so that they can build on them. (“The cup holder is great, but what I really need to carry is…”) I think innovation happens on the edges of existing knowledge, so if more knowledge is available, it makes for more edges and more mixing. If I know of an existing design, I might adapt it for a new situation or use, mix it with another idea, or be inspired to try something new. Even a “useless” idea (there was a Maker Faire booth about putting salvaged cell phone motors into pillows to make them vibrate) could have instructional value (wiring of basic circuits) or simply inspirational value (it’s ok to open an old gadget and make a new one out of it, even for a silly reason).

    You might have missed one of the Makers there, but he has a good blog and website:

    He’s taking the Wiimote, the remote for the Wii, and hacking it into quite a variety of interface controls, including head and hand tracking. Hardware and software hacking could definitely collide with such an idea and transform into any of an assortment of adaptive technologies.

    I meant to bring up a bit about the mechanical side of this topic in the Blank Slate session this morning, but you weren’t there and neither was anyone else. It just didn’t happen. The topic of Blank Slate was supposed to be what would wiki be if it were invented today, in a world of much more than just text? One of the things that text is terrible for communicating is geometry. In that respect, the wiki world has some work to do. We get a lot of wikiHow articles about physical procedures that lack photos or other visual cues for how to do them, and they’re often incomprehensible. Origami is a good example. How, exactly, do I “fold the paper diagonally backwards”? Before the sorts of designs you describe can be shared, we may need some new tools to share them, or at least some new variations on old tools.

    If we’ve done the prototyping in physical space, actually made a Velcro strap or duct tape pocket or whatever else, much can be documented by taking photos. My advice there is simply take more photos than you think are needed. Step by step in making the item, close up and zoomed out, various different angles can all inform.

    For more complicated designs, it may be desirable to do an illustration, perhaps a pattern that could be printed and scaled and cut out, perhaps a plan or mechanical drawing. It’s an entire profession, making mechanical drawings and diagrams to communicate a design, and documenting geometry. Design data these days comes in three dimensions. The free (but not mature way to try out this sort of thing is to download Google SketchUp and play with it a bit. As one who has used some vastly more sophisticated (also complex) software along the same line for about a decade now, I’m not to impressed with SketchUp as yet, but it’ll give you the gist. Geometry can be captured electronically, and it can be edited and have a history. I don’t know if there is such a thing as a wiki for 3-dimensional model information. Mostly I’ve seen galleries, and most require that you download and import any given model before you can see anything but a small thumbnail. There’s plenty of room for improvement in that direction. Models aren’t the only set of information needed to build a thing. Materials, specifications, instructions, and sources all figure in, and most mechanical design these days happens on top of large and sprawling databases of part numbers, vendors, specifications, and all sorts of other things. I don’t know if it would be necessary or desirable to build such things into a “mechanical design wiki”, but there is information that dwells outside the model, and the models and the databases of the world are barely interfacing correctly with each other, if they do so at all.

    Finally, you mentioned Engineers Without Borders. When I asked somebody, he seemed to think that there was a wiki there somewhere, but it didn’t sound like it was thriving. (There’s an organization called Volunteer Medical Engineers that seemed, last I checked, to be similarly unable to produce more than one of something it designed.) Disability hacks are one of many areas that could benefit from a “design base” wiki and the community that would congregate around it. Renewable/sustainable power, clean drinking water, and the like are another. Another potential community is all the hobbyist tinkerers out there building buzzing pillows, model planes, telescopes, and all sorts of other things. Most would probably enjoy exchanging ideas with others in a community, and many would probably lend ideas and assistance to some of the more practical designs if they were put in contact with people who needed them. (Just as an audience focuses writing, so an end user focuses design.) The know-how is out there if we can give it a nucleation point and a way to communicate.

  4. Hampshire College, in Massachusetts, has an Adaptive and Assistive Technology Program and it is full of young gearheads looking for challenges (and they have a kickass machine shop endowed by one of our alumni). I know they’ve done all sorts of things in the past; dance wheelchairs and tandem bikes and so on. It’s a bit of a crapshoot, in that some student needs to be interested in taking up a particular project, but knowing Hampshire as I do it seems that an Open Source Universal Access-type project would probably be right up some geektastic student’s alley.

  5. Dear Liz,
    Hampshire College's inventors' program truly is full of young and brainy folks who are looking for good disability-related projects. Whirlwind Wheelchair gave our course in wheelchair design and fabrication there twice, and in the process kidnapped Aaron Weiler, a hot new wheelchair inventor, to work on designs for the developing world. Whirlwind is for DIY crips; we have given this course for 20 years at San Francisco State University, and all are welcome. In 90 hours of lab time you can learn to weld, cut, bend and sew a complete state-of-the-art wheelchair together from scratch. Sure, it takes time, but if you are serious, this course is the fastest way to learn what you really need to know. Check for more info. Thanks, Liz…

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