Extending our reach
UD professor designs garments to improve upper-body mobility in children
It takes 10 hours to drive from North Carolina to Newark, but Kerstin Thompson doesn't mind. It's here, at UD's Move 2 Learn Innovation Laboratory, that a simple invention changed her daughter's life.
Sarah Thompson was born with arthrogryposis, a rare (1 in 3,000) condition that limits joint movements and affects the 4-year-old's ability to move her arms, legs and jaw. At UD, Prof. Michele Lobo and then-doctoral student Martha Hall had designed a shirt like no other--the Playskin Lift exoskeleton that helps babies like Sarah move their arms, build their muscles, and ultimately enjoy the kind of freedom and independence that all children crave.
"We put it on and instantly, Sarah's hand went up for the first time," Kerstin recalls. Now, almost three years later, her daughter can do what once seemed impossible--draw pictures, feed herself, brush her hair. "All of that started because she was able to build muscle through that suit," says Thompson. "I don't know where we would be without it."
Quickly dubbed “Super Suits” by both researchers and recipients, the exoskeleton's “superpowers” provide mobility, looks, comfort and support, strengthening arm muscle and improving upper-body mobility in infants and toddlers like Sarah. Their lightweight and flexible creations are now used by children all over the world, thanks in part to their low-cost construction and the low-tech DIY plans Lobo posts online for free.
As a physical therapy professor, Lobo never imagined she’d one day find herself at the forefront of rehabilitation technology. But the idea wasn’t so foreign, especially at UD, where fellow physical therapy Prof. Cole Galloway had revolutionized pediatric mobility through his GoBabyGo! program. But where Galloway had retrofitted toy cars through simple engineering, Lobo sought to transform clothing.
Traditionally, the model for assistive medical devices has often relied on one fundamental question: Does it work? For Lobo, it’s an incomplete assessment. “The reality is people don’t use those things we’ve made for them,” she says. “My approach is to treat this audience that’s usually overlooked the same way as you or me. So when we’re designing products for them, we’re asking, ‘Is this affordable? Is it accessible? Does it look nice? Does it help people express themselves?’”
Patient connection is at the very heart of her work, and Lobo’s Move 2 Learn Innovation Laboratory interacts closely with families on their unique needs. Since she launched the Super Suits program in 2014, she has received more than 60 requests for different projects, such as garments that can help support muscles (in the neck, legs, arms and elsewhere), clothes to protect against self-injurious behavior, stylish scarves to absorb saliva for children with oral motor problems—the list goes on.
And so the Thompsons continue to work with Lobo, making the 10-hour drive to Delaware, where Lobo, her students, and cross-campus colleagues are developing new innovations to improve mobility and health.
“There’s a massive external need, and our combination of health sciences, fashion and engineering offers unique internal expertise,” says Lobo, who has taken on more than a dozen such projects and always includes students in the effort. “When you hear the term ‘fashion,’ you think of the runway, but we’re looking at design as a scientific proces. We’re meeting people’s needs and the realities that come with them.”