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Child using a custom-designed device to help with physical disabilities
Kahlani is one of the many people who is benefitting from a custom designed device to help with physical disabilities.

Delaware First: Changing lives together

Photo courtesy of Ashley Pigford

Collective giving efforts have helped UD’s Ashley Pigford create life-changing devices

One phone call can change a life. University of Delaware’s Ashley Pigford, associate professor of graphic and interaction design, knows this firsthand.

It was a phone call that brought him to Kahlani, a little girl born without arms.

“I had been working with various robotic arms for some time when I was contacted by Reenee Donohoe, a physical therapist, and overall amazing person, at Nemours Children’s Health, and she told me about Kahlani,” Pigford said. “I began working with the little girl and her very supportive grandmother through many iterations of a custom assistive eating device, ultimately connecting a robotic arm with a bowl or plate option and attaching it to a highchair eating tray so Kahlani can feed herself.”

Kahlani is just one of the many people Pigford is helping through creative research of assistive devices for people with disabilities. The concept began as user-centered research with graduate students in 2017, and continues through Pigford’s relationships with parents and individuals. He designs, develops and tests devices and technologies that assist individuals with activities of daily living like eating, writing and mobility.

The prototype Pigford created for Kahlani became what he now calls the Ambit and is in use by many other children. As Kahlani grows, so does her need for new devices.

“I have delivered new prototypes to her family almost every year,” Pigford said. “Kahlani is always a delight to work with; she is full of smiles and cheer. Her grandmother is extremely grateful for the assistive eating system, and it brings me great joy to know that something I created is directly impacting the life of another person in such a significant way.”

In addition to Ambit, Pigford has created the PushnDraw™ -- an assistive device created to help people with upper extremity motor limitations to transition to independent drawing and writing.

For many families, commercial devices sold by large companies, devices similar to the ones Pigford creates, are too expensive and health insurance doesn’t cover the cost for the majority of them, he said. In contrast, Pigford raises funds to be able to design, develop and create the devices and give them to families for no cost. To be able to offer the life-changing devices for free, he has participated in a number of crowdfunding campaigns on days like Giving Tuesday and I Heart UD Giving Day at the University to raise funds for necessary materials.

The collective funding, usually consisting of small gifts, has made a big difference. 

“I have participated in three crowdfunding campaigns and raised more $10,000 to support this research,” Pigford said. “The crowdfunding was typically a culmination of very small amounts and every little bit definitely helps. These funds allow me to purchase the materials needed to create assistive devices and provide them to individuals for free, and to travel to conferences to present this work and outreach to a larger population of people than I would be able to otherwise.”

While the devices impact the specific individuals who receive them, Pigford also ensures others can not only contribute to improving the designs, but use his plans to create their own devices.

“The devices I create typically consist of off-the-shelf parts, and I publish the designs and build instructions online through the Creative Commons licenses,” Pigford said. “This way more mechanically inclined parents and caregivers can create the devices themselves and openly contribute design ideas to improve them. I whole-heartedly embrace the ‘nothing about us without us’ ideal.”

For more information about or to support Pigford’s research, visit here.

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