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Veterans and Auburn students collaborate on assistive technology

By Neali Vann and Carol Nelson, Office of Communications and Marketing

Six veterans who had left the challenges of active duty military life behind to face new challenges in civilian life recently teamed with students at Auburn University to generate ideas for customized devices that would improve quality of life for themselves and for other veterans with disabilities.

For the sixth consecutive year, industrial design students and rehabilitation students have collaborated to design solutions for the disabled through assistive technology projects. This year, six student teams were each paired with a veteran of the U.S. military who has a disability.

The inspiration to include military veterans in this year's assistive technology project came from Doris Hill, who joined Auburn's Center for Disability Research and Service in 2011 and had retired from a career in the U.S. Army. Hill said as a veteran, she thought the model that was already in place – using a team approach with the assistive technology end user as part of the team – had applications for veterans with disabilities.

The center opened in 2010 and is housed in the College of Education's Department of Special Education, Rehabilitation and Counseling. The Department of Industrial and Graphic Design is in the College of Architecture, Design and Construction.

The partnership between the two departments began with the idea of using assistive technology to improve quality of life for Auburn students with disabilities, later broadened its scope to include the surrounding community and this year expanded even further by asking military veterans to participate.

"Assistive technology is defined as any piece of equipment or device that can improve the quality of life for an individual with a disability and help that person be more independent," said Scott Renner, the center's coordinator for assistive technology.

"Students and veterans worked together to uncover challenges, research each disability and learn what already existed in the marketplace before turning to the job of finding solutions," said Jerrod Windham, an assistant professor of industrial design who directs students in the assistive technology project.

Concepts ranged from simple solutions to complex customizable prosthetics. Some of the devices explored by the teams in this year's project include an assist to move from a wheelchair to a standing position; a prosthetic with a more comfortable socket and greater range of mobility for an active person; a storage compartment to attach to a wheelchair that holds items used on a daily basis and helps the user be more self-sufficient; a portable attachment to aid getting in and out of a tub or shower; a mouth stick to operate electronic devices; and a customized crutch-like device to improve balance.

"With funding through the Auburn University Intramural Grant Program, some of the solutions are beyond the concept phase and are in further development," Windham said. "Over the six-year life of this collaborative project, there are a number of inventions that have directly helped the project volunteers. We also hope, through public and private economic partnerships, these inventions will help others with and without disabilities in the future."

The veterans who participated in this year's project had a range of military service – from two to more than 21 years – and a variety of disabilities.

The Wounded Warrior Program coordinator at Ft. Rucker asked Army veteran Andrew Weissenberger if he'd be interested in participating in the project at Auburn.

"Before he could even finish getting the question out of his mouth, I was committed to it," Weissenberger said. "Because anything that would help the boys coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan – I was all for it."

Weissenberger is in a wheelchair and has leg and spinal injuries and traumatic brain injury.

Marshall "Mac" Nelson is a Vietnam veteran who heard about the program from the director of prosthetics at the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System. Nelson lost a leg below the knee when he stepped on a land mine. He said he'd been so mobile for so long he wasn't sure there was anything the team could come up with that would be of help, but as they discussed ideas, he saw the benefits for himself but more importantly, for other veterans.

"Like other vets, I think about all of us," he said.

Last Updated: Jun 25, 2013

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