Engineering students look to Reduce Barriers

A team of Western Engineering students has eyes on a smoother road for those with accessibility barriers.

Ahmed Ouda, Sasha Van Dinther, Athina Wilson and Phil Protomanni presented the ‘Innovative Steering Wheel’ at last week’s First-Year Engineering Design Showcase. Under the theme Reducing Barriers to Accessibility, the event featured nearly 100 designs meant to address one or more challenges faced by individuals with limited mobility, dexterity and sight, among other limitations.

Team members explained individuals who have disabilities or paralysis in their lower extremities are still able to drive – provided their vehicles are equipped with a gas and braking system wired into the gearshift or another such handle nearby. But this option is not entirely convenient, nor is it easy to simultaneously operate buttons controlling the car’s speed and braking on the gearshift.

The current options on the market are also not very cost efficient.

The team’s revamped steering wheel addresses these issues ensuing safety, ease of operation and cost efficiency.

Ouda and his teammates designed a prototype model that has, on either side of the steering wheel, two accessible and easy-to-operate manual controls – one for speed, the other for braking. These controls are wired to the vehicle’s gas and brake pedals. The design ensures the driver’s hands are on the wheel at all times.

While their model car was a toy car – a ‘Dream’ car, one might say – with only one pedal to rewire, the prototype design is transferrable to all vehicles.

“It gives the feel of actual driving. You can feel the effect (of braking or speeding up) as you press it. It’s cheaper than current models and easily adaptable to the market,” Ouda said.

The prototype cost was roughly $40, Wilson said. Hand controls currently on the market can cost hundreds.

The only modification needed to install a realized prototype would be a rewiring of the steering wheel and pedals by a trained mechanic, Ouda noted.

Other designs at the showcase included a ‘Talking Menu’ meant to serve individuals who are visually impaired. The mobile device application would allow restaurants to upload menu items, reading them aloud to patrons with limited sight.

The ‘EZ On Shirt’ featured no buttons, instead using maneuverable clasps for persons with manual mobility and dexterity limitations.

Another design featured an elevating shelf, resembling a vertical Lazy Susan. The elevating shelf works on a belt is able rotate items in cabinets for persons who are in a wheelchair, or otherwise unable to reach items placed high on a shelf. A similar design adaptable to a refrigerator was also featured at the showcase.

After perusing all of the booths, students, staff and faculty visiting the showcase were able to vote on the best designs. The winning teams had designed a Head Controlled Wheelchair, Accessible Ovens, MeDispenser and a Mechanized Cabinet System. Each team received $100.