Disabled mobility aided by new device Motorized platform makes a difference

November 03, 1992|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Staff Writer

Raymond Jackson knows where he wants to go, but, at times, getting there seems to take forever.

The 13-year-old Columbia boy has cerebral palsy and has spent much of his life in a manual wheelchair. Traveling between classes at the Cedar Lane School, it takes him at least 15 minutes to cover 200 feet.

"That's a lot of class time wasted," lamented Robin Nussbaum, one of his teachers.

But with the help of workers at Westinghouse Electric Corp. in Baltimore County, Raymond has been using a motorized wooden platform that he can drive just like an electric wheelchair.

Using a joystick, Raymond now roves the halls of the Columbia school at a modest pace, cutting his drive time by about two-thirds.

The platform is about the size of a desktop. It allows therapists to gauge whether Raymond, who has slow motor skills and weakened muscles, can operate a motorized wheelchair. It will also help his parents decide whether to buy one -- potentially an $8,000 investment.

"This is basically just a trial period," said his mother, Velda. If Raymond continues to do well, the family will begin to look for funding for a motorized wheelchair through medical insurance and private foundations, Mrs. Jackson said.

A cross between a video game player and a teen-ager with a learner's permit, Raymond can't get enough of his newfound mobility. Try to talk to him and the normally sociable boy may soon grow impatient, jam the joystick forward and head straight for you with a grin on his face.

"Ray's the perfect candidate for that thing," said Ms. Nussbaum. "He knows when he's doing well and that's the important thing with these kids."

"These kids" are the 65 students from preschool through age 21 who attend Cedar Lane, which teaches the majority of the severely handicapped children in Howard County. In addition to cerebral palsy, other students have mental retardation and autism.

Cerebral palsy is caused by brain damage before or during birth and results in speech and muscle control problems. Consequently, Raymond and some other Cedar Lane students need specially placed leg and head supports to sit upright in their wheelchairs. Testing students in a motorized wheelchair would require constant customization at great time and expense.

Enter the Volunteers for Medical Engineering at Westinghouse. A group of engineers, draftsmen and machinists with chapters in 11 states, the Volunteers invent devices to help handicapped people.

At Cedar Lane's request, volunteer Bob Lewis salvaged parts from a broken wheelchair and mounted them on a plywood platform. He plugged in two, 12-volt batteries, attached yellow reflectors to the back and launched the "Cedar Lane Express."

Painted highway yellow, the contraption looks like the front of a forklift. Any manual wheelchair can be strapped onto the platform and converted to a motor vehicle.

The machine opens up new possibilities. Many children at the school have motor skill problems that leave their ability to drive an electric wheelchair in question. Over a period of months, therapists can test them to see if they can handle an electric wheelchair without having to purchase one.

Electric wheelchairs cost thousands of dollars; the "Cedar Lane Express" cost about $150.

The Volunteers spent a year designing the machine and unveiled it earlier this fall. Raymond is its first driver.

So far, Raymond has done well, says his therapist, Dixie Miliner. But she still must guide him through doorways and sometimes has to help him point the joystick.

One of Raymond's favorite parts of the machine has nothing to do with motion.

Raymond demonstrates. Raising his hand high above his head, he plunges it down on a yellow button that controls the horn.

As a high-pitched metallic whine rises through the air, Raymond leans his head back, opens his eyes wide and grins. It is as though the button has sent an electric charge through his body.

The platform should give more children an opportunity to prove themselves. After Raymond is finished, Ms. Miliner plans to test at least two more students at Cedar Lane.

Therapists at other schools have expressed interest in getting a machine of their own. John Staehlin, a consulting engineer at Westinghouse and founder of the Volunteers, is already working on a smaller, more maneuverable platform that can be manufactured.

Even if the children tested do not ultimately get their own motorized wheelchairs, the platform still offers a unique opportunity.

"It's the first time in their whole lives that they control where they're going," Ms. Miliner said.

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