Valpo U students helping modify motorized cars for kids with disabilities


Wednesday morning Nolan and Sean Carroll, ages 4 1/2 and 3, respectively, giggled joyously as they cruised around in kiddie cars in the sunshine on the big black rubber mat at the Valparaiso University Gellersen Center College of Engineering Bioengineering Lab.

The typically developing preschoolers were there helping out their peers with disabilities in the first step to providing them with modified motorized cars.

The goal was to observe how the boys found their way to operate the commercially-produced ride-ons while occupational health graduate students and bioengineering students prepare for the effort to modify off-the-shelf cars to suit the needs of children with disabilities in a local effort for the national GoBabyGo! initiative.

The University of Delaware started the program and posted open-source guidelines for anyone who wanted to use them.

Reva Johnson, associate professor of mechanical engineering and bioengineering at VU, has had her students involved since 2017 when senior design students began partnering with the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab in Chicago. This is the first year they’re working on-site at VU in a partnership with occupational health doctoral students from the College of Nursing & Health Professions.

While for typically developing children a ride-on might just be a great toy, for disabled kids it can be a mobility aid filling the gap created when pediatric electric wheelchairs – which typically run tens of thousands of dollars, take a long time to get approved by insurance, and are quickly outgrown – are out of reach. Even those who don’t need a wheelchair can benefit from a modified ride-on.

“There’s a population of children who may not need a wheelchair but are not fully mobile to keep up with other kids,” said Theresa Carroll, the Carroll Boys’ mom and clinical associate professor of occupational therapy at VU. “As soon as a baby starts to crawl they have control over their world. There’s a lot of brain development that happens through mobility,” she added. “As soon as you can move your vision is different while you’re mobile.”

The VU GoBabyGo! group is looking for families interested in applying for a modified motorized car for their children. The acceptable age range is fluid, depending on the weight limits of the various vehicles, the unique physiques of the children, and whether different models can be modified to suit the specific needs of individual children, but the group anticipates aiding kids from 18 months up to the 10-to-12-year-old age range.

Valparaiso University bio-medical engineering students junior Quinn Brothers, left, senior Abby Middleton, center, and senior Emma Lacey assemble a child's battery-operated vehicle to learn how it can be modified at the school's College of Engineering on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. (Michael Gard/Post-Tribune)
Valparaiso University bio-medical engineering students junior Quinn Brothers, left, senior Abby Middleton, center, and senior Emma Lacey assemble a child’s battery-operated vehicle to learn how it can be modified at the school’s College of Engineering on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. (Michael Gard/Post-Tribune)

The plan is to have three to five selected children come in to try out different models, take measurements, and determine what modifications would be necessary to make the vehicle operational for the child. The goal is to provide the vehicles to families at no cost using commercially available cars.

The vehicles can also be modified to meet a specific therapeutic need, such as placing a controller in a certain spot to work a specific muscle group. On a vehicle Nolan was using, for example, a foam swimming kickboard was used behind his back to support him more and help him sit up straighter. Once the vehicles are ready the kids will be brought back into the lab to troubleshoot any needed fine-tuning, and hand over the keys by May 4.

Senior biomedical major Quinn Brothers, of Canton, Michigan, said the engineering of the toys themselves is pretty basic. “Everything varies from kid to kid, so making everything work for them is probably the most complicated (aspect).”

First-year occupational therapy doctoral student Peyton Throw, of Rochester Hills, Michigan, stood by with fellow doctoral student Maria Camacho, of LaPorte, assessing how the boys were using two cars. “I think it’s the one with the most potential to adapt,” she said of a pink Jeep-like model.

“The one that spins could be good for sensory integration,” Camacho replied. “You can tell the difference between Sean and Nolan on this.”

Reva Johnson, associate professor of mechanical engineering and bio-engineering at Valparaiso University, straps-in Nolan Carroll, 4 1/2, into a battery-operated vehicle at the school's College of Engineering on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. (Michael Gard/Post-Tribune)
Reva Johnson, associate professor of mechanical engineering and bio-engineering at Valparaiso University, straps in Nolan Carroll, 4 1/2, into a battery-operated vehicle at the school’s College of Engineering on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. (Michael Gard/Post-Tribune)

“He’s driving with his elbows now,” Throw pointed out, launching all the collaborators into another conversation on how the cars could be adapted for kids with incomplete limbs.

The application for the VU GoBabyGo! selection process can be accessed at https://forms.gle/6yqTf6r3u3enQ32y5.

More information about the program in general can be found at https://www.valpo.edu/college-of-nursing-and-health-professions/2024/02/14/gobabygo-launching-at-valpo/.

“The founders of GoBabyGo! assert very strongly that mobility is a human right,” Carroll said.

Shelley Jones is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.

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