S.F. makers design imaginative devices for disabled

A way for women in wheelchairs to relieve themselves. A glove that translates sign language into speech. A “kicker helper” so kids in wheelchairs can play soccer. A device to help people on crutches carry beverages.

About 100 volunteers will whip up working prototypes of these and other adaptive technology devices at a three-day Makeathon that started Friday morning at San Francisco’s TechShop, a space crammed with tools and machines. Each project team brings together engineers, designers, developers and makers, along with a “needs knower” — a person who proposed a specific project, born out of personal knowledge of why it’s needed.

“We aren’t doing this for someone; we are doing it with them,” said Arnon Zamir, founder of Israel’s Tikkun Olam Makers, which is sponsoring the event with support from Google.org and United Cerebral Palsy of the North Bay. “It’s as if a startup had their clients sitting in the office constantly, reminding them what the need is and helping manage the project so it closely meets that need.”

Zebreda Dunham of Pasadena, who has limited use of her hands, already hacked a solution to help her eat: a wrist-operated pulley with a spoon duct-taped on. But at the Makeathon she’s working with a seven-person team to devise something that would work for a range of people.

“Some people can use one hand, some can’t use either one, but the device should work either way,” she said, as her group scribbled goals on a whiteboard.

Evan Tamir, whose 10-year-old son has cerebral palsy, critiqued a design that looked like a mini-rocket, saying it was too bulky to take to restaurants. “It’s better if it’s really small, so you can put it on the table anywhere,” he said.

While the needs knowers will go home with whatever their team creates, the larger goal is to generate open-source designs that can be cheaply replicated by others.

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