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News / Northwest

In teaching disability-inclusive engineering, Whitworth University professors hope to open lab creating inclusive toys for Spokane children

By Amanda Sullender, The Spokesman-Review
Published: May 14, 2024, 7:57am

SPOKANE — Designs created by freshman engineering students at Whitworth University may one day help create toys for Spokane children with disabilities.

The semesterlong engineering project is a collaboration between Whitworth’s engineering and physical therapy departments — the latter of which provides direct services to Spokane residents, including young children. These young children have access to toys in their waiting room, but these toys are not always inclusive to children who have disabilities. This semester students in Professor David Schipf’s “Intro to Engineering” class took specifications developed by physical therapy students to create an electric toy car inclusive for children with certain disabilities.

For Schipf, it was important for these students to think about how their designs should be accessible to as many people as possible. The project could be the first step in creating an inclusive toy design lab at Whitworth, Schipf said.

“God gives us all different skills and opportunities in life. And I think it’s important for these students to learn while they’re in school that they’re given a great opportunity to get an engineering degree with these skills that can be used to help a lot of people,” he said Monday following his students’ design presentations.

The toy car designs are based on the needs of a Spokane child who received services from the university’s physical therapy department approximately 10 years ago. A toddler at the time when they received services, this child did not have forearms extending beyond the elbow and used prosthetics in their daily life. Split into two teams, half the class developed an electric toy car whose controller could be used by the child with their prosthetic, while the other team built the toy to be functional without the use of a prosthetic.

One group’s remote used cups placed on joysticks where arms can be placed and moved to maneuver the electric car. The remote is also held up by a harness mounted to the body. The other group’s controller was modified to be controlled by a prosthetic without the dexterity of fingers. The cars were designed with a small child in mind. One car was modeled after a Tesla, while the other sported a drawn-on lightning bolt for added effect.

Freshman engineering student Noah Bleeker said they tried to create the design as simply as they could while following the parameters of this child’s disability.

“A lot of the principles that go into disability inclusion can also just be applied to general simplification of design. It’s important to make sure that you’re not creating things that are insanely hard to use for anybody,” Bleeker said.

The student designs are not yet near where they need to be for safe use by real-life children. But the prototypes will be worked on by new classes in future semesters until they can be integrated into the physical therapy department.

“The end goal is for the physical therapy department to be able to bring local children into their clinic and have these children engage in normal play with these inclusive toys,” Schipf said. “I’d say we’d need to iterate at least three more times from this first attempt. But we really want to move toward having a dedicated lab for inclusive toy design and prototyping here at Whitworth.”

The engineering professor also added he would “love” to partner with a specific local family whose child could make use of a new toy tailored to their disability.