Assistive Tech Doesn't Have to be High Tech - Freethink
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Assistive Tech Doesn’t Have to be High Tech

“I hate to be fed.”

Ryan Hines and I are discussing the ignominy of being unable to feed oneself, an experience I know nothing about, but one Ryan—who was born with a congenital disorder that left him with short, largely immobile arms—knows all too well.

“I can’t stand for someone to feed me,” he tells me again.

And this is why he created the Bear Paw: So that people with disabilities like his—called arthrogryposis—can feed themselves.

As far as assistive technologies go, the Bear Paw is simple. Three suction cups root the base to a table. On top of that base is a small rod, and on top of that rod is a magnet. A person who can’t use their arms, but can use their torso, neck, and mouth, then clenches a spoon between their lips, dips it into a bowl of food, places the spoon on top of the Bear Paw. Then they simply spin it around, and take a bite.

Like this:

The person in that video is Ryan, 29. When I first saw the Bear Paw, using it looked labor intensive. But then Ryan tells me about the alternatives.

“Starting in preschool, I had this feeding tray,” he says. “I used it for 20 years. It worked, but it was big and bulky, and it wasn’t good for everything. I had to avoid soups and cereal, or be fed.” Basically, the tray was put up close towards his face, and he’d just dip his head downward and eat off it. Not exactly an elegant solution to immobile upper extremities. Then we talked about the high-tech assistive devices for people with reduced arm functionality. Like the Obi, a button-activated robotic device with a feeding arm. It’s incredible technology. But for someone on a fixed income—as many people with severe upper body disabilities are—it’s incredibly expensive: $4,500.

Assistive tech is improving in leaps and bounds, thanks in large part to robotics. But most of them are still out of reach for people like Ryan.

Assistive tech is improving in leaps and bounds, thanks in large part to robotics. But most of them are still out of reach for people like Ryan.

“The Obi is far easier to use than what I made, but at the same time, it costs $4,500. People are on disability or fixed income, and insurance companies won’t pay for it, because it’s not a necessity.”

When Ryan looked at the options for feeding himself—having someone else do it, using a crude, decades-old tray model, or finding $4,500 for something high-tech—he decided to just do what so many other people have been empowered to do in the internet age: Make something himself.

“I just had this idea that popped into my head: I can put food on a spoon myself. What if I then put it on a swivel mechanism and spun it around? That would be so easy.”

“I just had this idea that popped into my head: I can put food on a spoon myself. What if I then put it on a swivel mechanism and spun it around? That would be so easy.”

Easy, in part, because Ryan has an associates degree in computer assisted design (CAD).

“I began drawing it and sketching it out, and I had a design within a couple of hours. With 3D printing really booming right now, I could take advantage of that and have a prototype built and sent to me.”

The first one, he says, was a bit wonky.

“It worked, but it wasn’t reliable. The swivel mechanism would swivel, but sometimes it would come off. I needed to fix that. It was trial and error. Standard stuff.”

After tightening up the design, he posted the above video demonstration in a disabilities forum, and offered to make a Bear Paw for anyone who was interested. The price? $149.99.

“It was really rewarding to see this little girl essentially being able to feed herself ice cream for the first time with something I had created.”

Ryan personally delivered his first Bear Paw shortly before his wedding this past May. “It was really rewarding to see this little girl essentially being able to feed herself ice cream for the first time with something I had created.” Another woman wanted to order the Bear Paw for her daughter, but was worried about her outgrowing it. So Ryan built in a telescoping function.

What’s great about Ryan’s invention is that it’s not so different from the Obi, or the robotic arm we profiled in this week’s episode, when you consider that 20 years ago, no one could foresee the high-end assistive technology starting to hit the market anymore than they could imagine someone with Ryan’s disability designing and manufacturing their own assistive technology for a fraction of the price.

“You can make pretty much anything you want, if you can design it in 3D on a computer. And you can do it inexpensively. It’s pretty amazing,”

“You can make pretty much anything you want, if you can design it in 3D on a computer. And you can do it inexpensively. It’s pretty amazing,” Ryan says. “I’m so fortunate that I have access to that technology, and the training to use it.”

And he’s going to keep making Bear Paw devices, as well as helping other folks with disabilities design their own pieces of tech.

“I think most people—developers and innovators—need to gear more toward simplicity and cost efficiency, and I also believe that the path to independence is through technology.”

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