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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

By creating device to help disabled child, disabled URI engineering student helps himself

Media Contact: Todd McLeish, 401-874-7892

KINGSTON, R.I. -- April 29, 2005 -- When a car accident on Memorial Day 1997 left Kevin Cronin a quadriplegic, he set a career goal of using his mechanical abilities to create ways to make his new life easier. But first, he’s using those abilities to help other individuals with disabilities.

Cronin, 27, of South Kingstown, had just completed his freshman year at the University of Rhode Island when his accident occurred. Following years of surgeries, rehabilitation, and a few modest jobs, he returned to URI in 2003 to complete his degree in mechanical engineering.

As an intern in URI’s Assistive Technology Laboratory, Cronin recently completed development of a unique switch and arm brace to help 10-year-old Caitlin Farless of Wakefield more easily operate a voice output device that helps her communicate, as well as operate toys, a radio, and other equipment.

“Caitlin has cerebral palsy as a result of a birth injury, so she lacks the ability to communicate, and she can’t get her muscles to do what she wants them to do,” explained Caitlin’s mother, Kathleen Doyle, a nurse at URI Health Services. “When she tried to operate a switch to control the communication device, her arms would flail around and she would use a lot of energy and misfire with the switch.”

So Cronin asked questions of Doyle, Caitlin’s teacher and her physical therapist at Hazard School to learn exactly what they wanted the switch to do, where on her wheelchair it should be mounted, and what position her arm should be in when using the switch.

“Customized devices like this can be really expensive, but we were able to create an inexpensive one that connects easily to Caitlin’s wheelchair, supports her arm and elbow comfortably, and is easy to operate,” Cronin said.

“We’ve tried many devices before, and all have been difficult for her to use,” said Doyle. “But this one uses the least amount of energy and she can operate it with more ease. She’s much more able to manage the switch and be more accurate with her communication because of it.

“Kevin really spent a lot of time listening and looking at the issues and meeting with Caitlin. He has first hand experience, so he understood that the spasticity doesn’t allow her to do the things she wants to do.”

Cronin said the next step is to modify the device to make it adjustable so it can be used as Caitlin grows or changes positions, and to adapt it for use on a “standing frame” so Caitlin can use it in a standing position as well.

“Helping Caitlin has given me a great sense of accomplishment,” said the URI student. “It gives me motivation to want to create more tools and devices to help more people. Every day I find myself thinking about how I can make things better for myself and other people by adapting equipment for their special needs.”

“Kevin is exactly the kind of person we needed in our Assistive Technology Laboratory,” said Ying Sun, a URI professor of biomedical engineering who directs the lab. “He can not only work in the lab, but he can serve as a consultant to me and the other students because he knows from personal experience what works and what doesn’t, and what kind of devices will be most useful.”

Cronin has some big ideas for devices he’d like to develop to make him and others more independent.

“I want to create a backpack-briefcase that can be mounted on the back of a wheelchair and that can swing around in front to become a mobile desk for a laptop computer,” he said. “Most school desks are connected to chairs, which are of no use to people in wheelchairs.

“I also want to create an X-Box [video game] controller with bigger buttons and a better joystick that’s easier to use. And I’ve got big aspirations for further down the road to create a helicopter that I can pilot myself, and a better van that’s easier to get in and out of.”

All of which will not only make Cronin’s life easier, but also the lives of many other individuals with disabilities.