By P.E.I. design

UPEI students use their engineering smarts to improve the life of one young woman in a wheelchair and her father

Mary MacKay
Published on March 10, 2015

UPEI engineering students Peter Doiron of New Glasgow, left, and Brady Gallant of Rustico, right, get some words of encouragement from Patrick Kaguu M’Impwi as they modify his daughter’s wheelchair. They are the proud designers of a wheelchair handle attachment that allows M’Impwi to push his daughter, Catherine Kaaniru, over the rocky, hilly terrain in their Kenyan village with much more ease

©Submitted photo

When faced with a problem, sometimes it’s best to take a step back to get a handle on the situation.

That’s what Brady Gallant of Rustico and Peter Doiron of New Glasgow did one night in their hotel in Kenya as they struggled to find the right redesign for a wheelchair of a young

woman who was having mobility issues.

And an idea for an actual handle adaptation was the eureka moment for the two second-year students in UPEI’s School of Sustainable Design Engineering.

“It was a pretty simple design, but it made a big difference,” Gallant says of their handle device that opened a whole new world for Catherine Kaaniru and her father, Patrick Kaguu M’Impwi, who struggled daily to push his daughter over the rocky, hilly terrain in their village.

Gallant and Doiron were part of a 2015 Mikinduri Children of Hope (MCOH) mission trip, which included P.E.I. nurses and doctors, as well as UPEI and Dalhousie University students.

“(People with disabilities) is clearly the biggest need. Even though there are so many people there who need help in so many different ways, people with disabilities in Kenya are really often overlooked,” says the UPEI students’ professor Libby Osgood, who was also team leader for the MCOH trip.

The UPEI students tossed their original design plans to the wind when they saw firsthand the needs of Catherine and her father, namely hills which required one person to push the wheelchair and another to pull a rope tied to the front.

“So we really wanted to make it so he could do it by himself,” Gallant says.

The UPEI students wracked their brains for a solution.

“After, we were sitting back at our hotel for two days trying to come up with ideas and designs and we were so frustrated. Then one day we said, ‘Why are the handles this way?’ So we looked at that and changed the handles where we could probably a lot easier,” Gallant remembers.

“We designed a more ergonomic handle that improves and increases the amount of force that you can use to push the wheelchair up the hill because the (original) handles are in such a position that you’re not using your maximum force.”

They collaborated with welding students at Athwana Polytechnic to build the prototype that also included an improved handbrake system.

“The last day we were working on it — they have power outages there, too — we actually had to cut the metal the old-fashioned way with a chisel and hammer,” Doiron says.

“That took a while, but all the students took turns with that. It was pretty cool to work with them.”

Then came the test run; with Doiron as the real life crash test dummy.

Gallant tried first unsuccessfully to push him up the hill with the original handles; then successfully made it to the top with the adapted ones.

Then came the reveal day.

“She liked it, but also her father’s reaction (was priceless). He loved it,” Doiron says.

Mary MacKay@guardianmarymac


3 Facts

The wheelchair

Students at Athwana Polytechnic were involved in the building process so they can now modify other wheelchairs.

Brady Gallant and Peter Doiron hope to make improvements to their improvised wheelchair handle attachment and share them as well.

"It was a great experience," Peter Doiron says, "and it was really awesome to see the effect that we could have on these people's lives."