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Photo (l-r):
URI junior Gary Comtois, Andrew Sylvia, and his father, Gary Sylvia.

Photo by Ying Sun

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Department of Communications/
News Bureau
22 Davis Hall, 10 Lippitt Road, Kingston, RI 0288
Phone: 401-874-2116 Fax: 401-874-7872

Media Contact: Todd McLeish 401-874-7892

URI student creates device to help
disabled Westerly boy use computer

Light-activated switch can aid other patients, too

KINGSTON, R.I. -- October 2, 2003 -- Eight-year-old Westerly resident Andrew Sylvia’s battle to overcome the effects of cerebral palsy just got a little easier, thanks to a device developed by a University of Rhode Island student that will help Andrew communicate better.

Andrew uses a computer software program to communicate with his family and friends. The program scans through a variety of words, pictures and letters, and Andrew must operate a switch with his head to indicate the words he wants to say. But because of a movement disorder that accompanies his rare form of the disease, he often hits the switch unintentionally and his messages become garbled.

So URI junior Gary Comtois of Lincoln created a light-activated switch that reduces the incidental contact with the switch.

"It’s extremely hard to find the hardware that’s made specifically for Andrew’s needs," explained Andrew’s father, Gary Sylvia. "I’ve always had to adapt things for his needs. This new device eliminates the mis-hits, and we’ve been able to fine tune how much motion it takes to activate the switch."

To operate the new switch, Andrew wears a tiny light no bigger than a needle attached to a headband, and he directs the beam of light at a small receiver mounted on the head-support of his wheelchair. Because the receiver is small, it is very difficult for Andrew to activate the switch unintentionally, and because the transmitter and receiver are close together, he only needs to make tiny movements to activate it.

Working over the summer with URI Biomedical Engineering Professor Ying Sun, Comtois created the new device as part of his internship to develop assistive technologies for patients at the Eleanor Slater Hospital in Cranston.

"Patients need a broad range of devices to meet the needs of their widely varying levels of disabilities," said Sun. "While this particular device is helping Andrew, it can also benefit many other cerebral palsy patients as well."

"The fact that behind this project was a real patient in need really motivated me," the URI student said. "I came up with an initial design, then met with Andrew and his parents to learn more specifically what they needed, and then modified the design based on their input. A lot of the ideas for the final design came from Andrew’s father."

Added Sun: "The device looks very simple, but it’s actually quite complicated because we didn’t want the switch to be triggered by light from the sun or a lamp or any other light source. So the light from the transmitter is modulated at 1000 hertz – it blinks 1,000 times per second – so only a 1000 hertz light source triggers it."

To refine the interface between the light-activated switch and the computer software, the URI team also worked with Joanne Heffernan, an expert in augmentative and alternative communication from TechACCESS in Warwick.

Comtois, a biomedical and electrical engineering major, spent two months of full-time effort to complete the device. "Having this internship and working on this project was the best way to see what I could do with my education at URI," he said. "It really opened my eyes to the career possibilities."

As a result of the successful development of the new switch, Comtois was one of 61 undergraduate students from around the country chosen to present their research at the Biomedical Engineering Society’s annual fall meeting in Nashville in October.

"I can’t say enough about Gary," said Andrew’s father, a 1985 URI graduate with a degree in chemical engineering. "He’s really on the ball, did exactly what we needed, and he did it fast."

For Further Information: Ying Sun 401-874-2515

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Page last revised Thursday, October 9, 2003 .