Engineering Accessibility

I was invited to visit to FirstBuild, "an online and physical community dedicated to designing, engineering, building, and selling the next generation of major home appliances." I toured the facility with a friend and saw some of the cutting edge ideas they are working on; including appliances that are more easily accessed by those with disabilities.

A group of University of Louisville mechanical engineering students were meeting about their capstone project – a refrigerator accessible for wheelchair users. They had already worked with an occupational therapist and a patient at the local rehab hospital. They requested input from me as well.

What they had planned was an easier-to-open door for people with limited hand function or strength. The storage space was to have pull-out shelves and the top two shelves were to pull down and out for easy access. Almost all of this was still on a computer screen and in the heads of five university students when we met.

Fast forward one month and I attended the students’ final presentation of the ADA refrigerator. I was amazed that in four weeks’ time they were able to take ideas on a piece of paper and a computer model and put together a prototype.

The refrigerator door offers a concave area behind the handle that allows additional room for individuals, without hand function, to put a forearm through the handle and use their bicep to open the door. The inside of the refrigerator has no storage in the door to allow the shelving to come out as far as possible, making items easier to reach. According to their measurements, instead of losing storage space by removing the storage in the door, they actually increased storage capacity by 13.3%. The sliding shelves can hold up to 100 pounds (which is well above the 60 pounds that the students were aiming for). And the top two shelves do indeed pull down and can hold up to 30 pounds of goods; five pounds of force is needed to pull the shelf down. One feature that they worked on but didn’t complete was a switch that would be activated by a simple touch of the door handle to reduce or even eliminate the force required to break the seal when opening the door. (Another FirstBuild team is now working on this project.)

Sometimes it can feel like we are on our own having to modify our surroundings to meet our needs. I cannot tell you how impressed I was to meet these intelligent young men who were creating something that could positively impact the lives of wheelchair users.

Another group of Purdue engineering students is currently working on an ADA range and stove. Their latest idea includes a rotating induction stove top so wheelchair uses can access the back burners as well as the front burners. Great ideas, indeed.

To give input in to the ADA refrigerator and ADA range projects, go to the following links. Your input and ideas are welcomed. 


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