Everyday Items Offer Assistive Technology On The Cheap
Therese Willkomm, a nationally-recognized occupational therapist from New Hampshire, shows people how to “take ordinary items and use them in extraordinary ways” to help those with disabilities.
Such demonstrations have earned her the nickname the “MacGyver of assistive technology.” Like the resourceful TV character, Willkomm comes up with hundreds of innovations with everyday things.
Willkomm was in Honolulu recently, telling people about her modus operandi of “creating a solution in five minutes or less without electricity (and preferably) with $5 or less.”
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
As a youngster who struggled with learning disabilities and Tourette’s syndrome, Willkomm said she never thought she would be able to write a book. But with the help of computer technology, she has authored 22 assistive technology publications. She’s also an assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire and director of its state assistive technology program.
Honolulu resident Hoku Defeo, who attended the workshops, said her son Dominick, 5, is completely dependent and “medically fragile,” but she and her husband are teaching him to use an iPad to communicate.
“One of the biggest challenges is just setting up the iPad so he can reach it and see it from the right angle” from his wheelchair or lying in bed, she said. Adaptive equipment costs several hundred dollars but “you don’t know if it will work” with certain furniture, Defeo said.
“(Willkomm) taught me how to look at what is surrounding us” and see how things can be repurposed, Defeo said. “She made me go, ‘Oh, my God — yes!’ That was a big part of it, helping us to get that big lightbulb to go off in our heads.”
The first thing Defeo plans to make is an adjustable stand for an iPad using Loc-Line (bendable hose used to prop up cameras and other objects), a plastic microwave plate and corrugated plastic.
Those items are among the most frequently used materials in Willkomm’s MacGyver-style toolbox, which also includes Velcro, 17-inch industrial twist ties and flagpole brackets.
Defeo said she also picked up some pointers about adhesive tape.
“I had no idea that there were so many different versions of tape,” she said.
Joanne Hopper also said she was impressed by Willkomm’s “amazing ideas” on how to use various tapes and fasteners. Her daughter Hannah, 13, has Down syndrome and severe vision and hearing disabilities.
Hopper said the first thing she’ll construct is a “slant board,” using corrugated plastic that can be cut and bent into various configurations, to support Hannah’s iPad and for drawing and tracing.
“I’m very excited to be making it for Hannah,” she said, adding that she’s eager to pass on ideas to the families of her daughter’s classmates.