A little girl with disabilities has been having the joy ride of her life since Syracuse University engineering students designed a toy car for preschoolers like her. It's a story about giving children with special needs independence and helping them fit in with their peers. It's a story that shows just how much technology can enable our children. And above all, it's a story about seeing the potential—something our children need in droves.
Luna, 5, has neurodevelopmental delays that affect speech and mobility. She typically gets around in an adaptive stroller that's pushed by someone else. Luna attends the Jowonio School, which has an inclusive educational program where children of all abilities learn in the same classrooms. It's hard for the school to get a loaner power wheelchair for the young kids, as there aren't many available in central New York. And so, the school partnered with biomedical engineering students at Syracuse U. to consider what might be possible.
The three seniors participating in the project—Katie Cooper, Brendan Butcher and Zach Reers—decided to build a device that was like a wheelchair, but also transitional so a child could also play with friends. They came up with a mini car that has a joy stick for steering (like a motorized wheelchair); kids can also drive via an adjustable head array. There's also an iPad mount so the driver can use a speech app for communication, and room for a buddy. The students called it the "Otto-Mobile" after Otto, the school's mascot.
Luna can get herself around in the car, encouraging independence. Being at the other kids' eye level in the car makes for better social participation, notes her occupational therapist. And of course, the Otto-Mobile is cool. Small wonder it won first place in Syracuse's Bioengineering Capstone Competition. The students donated it to Luna's school.
Check out the video. I'll just warn you now, it's not safe for work because you will likely dissolve into a puddle of tears when you see Luna coming down the hallway in that tricked out little car. She owns it.
The name of Luna's school, Jowonio, comes from a word in the Onondaga nation language that means to set free. That is exactly what thinking like this and technology can do for our children, enabling them in ways big and small. First, though, people need to see the potential of children with disabilities, believe that they deserve to experience what the world has to offer, and understand that the best assistance of all comes from helping people help themselves.