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Faces on Design — Students and Professors Work Together to Create Custom Adaptive Devices

Faces on Design, a college course for designing individual devices to meet the needs of clients with disabilities is changing expectations for academic success.


A group of college students pose with a middle-aged man sitting in a wheelchair. A second wheelchair sits empty to the right. They are all smiling.

At the University of Detroit Mercy, an engineering and nursing professor decided to think outside of the box. 


Many companies create, manufacture, and sell items to assist those with disabilities. These products can improve the independence of those with challenges in activities of daily living and vocational performance. However, without identifying the specific individual needs of a client, adaptive devices may not provide an optimal solution. The focus of program coordinators, Dr. Darryll Kleinke and Dr. Molly McClelland, is creating student-client relationships prior to the process of designing and implementing equipment.


Planning for a new program began in 2008 with the belief that each person, regardless of their disability, is an individual and does not fit into any particular performance profile. Although several college programs exist with a curriculum based on assistive technology and universal design for learning. Bringing together professors, students, and individual clients with disabilities is a unique concept, requiring creativity and extensive collaborative efforts.


When senior nursing and engineering students sign up to complete the two-semester course, they embark on a new adventure, becoming part of a team with a focus on one client with a disability. As Dr. Megan Conrad, a biochemical engineering professor who joined the university in 2014 explains, students are assigned to a client without any direction. Their task becomes to get to know the person, find out exactly what it is that they struggle with, and solve the problem for them. Students cannot use something that is already marketed as an adaptive device.


Dr. Darryll Kleinke came to the university from the auto industry, where he spent 25 years as a mechanical engineer. Upon beginning the program, he wisely identified that he needed help from another professor with a different perspective. This resulted in Dr. Molly McClelland becoming involved as a nursing professor. Later, when the program was established, Dr. Megan Conrad was drawn to the university and to teaching this particular class. Having trained at the University of Chicago in hand rehabilitation and bio-engineering, she realized that she was uniquely qualified for this position. This effective team of colleagues joined forces with other departments, including the legal department, to create their success.


When teams comprised of two to three nursing students and three to four engineering students were first formed, Dr. McClelland readily recognized differences in how each group approached their projects. The orientation of each profession and the terminology used required a learning process for communication. Engineering students focused on the functionality of the device, while nursing students focused on the safe and effective use of the adaptive equipment. Working together in this way has proven to be a successful way to meet client needs.


Other collaborations are an integral part of this program. Institutions including Lawrence Tech University, Baylor University, and Detroit Center for Creative Studies have all provided important components, affecting student outcomes. This Faces of Design program has achieved national recognition by the White House for contributions to the field of nursing. 


The Clients’ Perspective


Mike is a client who has nothing but praise for the students from this program.

After suffering a serious body surfing accident while on a short trip to Florida, he awoke in the hospital paralyzed with no memory of what happened. Having his entire life altered required tremendous support from his family and others. Mike is an artist, a skillful painter who also played drums in a band prior to his accident. Becoming connected with the program at UDM proved critical to his ongoing emotional healing and rehabilitation.


Mike, a man with brown hair, sits in his wheelchair in front of an easel and canvas. He's holding a paint brush in his left hand. The easel is a customized adaptive device created for him using a TV mount and magnets.

Connecting at his home, Mike says students spent hours getting to know him, offering three different devices to assist him with holding a paintbrush. Eventually, an easel was created using a wall mount for stability, with three large magnets to hold his work in place. The engineering students were able to use an everyday item already on the market, modifying its intended use for Mike. Throughout the rehab process, Mike switched dominance to his left hand. He now holds a tool effectively to complete oil paintings, his favorite form of painting. He was brought to tears working with students from this program and feels that he can meet his personal goal “to get up and move,” both physically and emotionally, with continued prayer and hope.


Another client, Hope, is a young woman who was born with spina bifida. As a regular wheelchair user, she was in need of something to carry items in her daily life and push her wheelchair at the same time. After meeting with engineering students once a month over the course of a year, a basket was attached to the back of her chair held on by magnets. A set of pulls releases the magnets.


Video Description: Hope demonstrates how to use the adaptive device the students at UDM created for her. She pulls a lever that releases magnets attaching a basket to the back of her wheelchair. As she continues to pull, the basket moves around the chair to the side, so she can reach it. As she moves the lever back, the basket returns to the back of her chair, and the magnets snap it into place.


Currently, Hope has completed a post-secondary education program. She is now able to demonstrate an increased level of independence in many areas of her life. Both she and her family express gratitude for the individualized time and attention given to them and Hope’s individual needs.


True Value of the Program


Dr. Kleinke readily expresses what he is most proud of. When students begin the class, they are very concerned about their grade and task completion. By the second semester, he observes that students become so invested in the well-being of their client that instead of focusing on grades, they become enthralled with the person who is achieving a new level of independence. Dr. Conrad also states that often engineers learn to focus on themselves to determine the effectiveness of an item. She takes pride in the fact that they learn to look at the world through the eyes of the client. All students participate in events where they experience what it is like to be in a wheelchair or have difficulty with fine motor skills.


An engineering failure can become a success through a changed perspective. Reflection prior to the experience is completed, and then after, students describe what it is actually like. If the goal is independence, the question becomes, “Is this really an accessible option?” For the client, the outcome is a life-changing event. For the students, the reward becomes “the smile on the face of the client.”


5 UDM students gather around Hope in her wheelchair. All are smiling.

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