Alabama high school students design technology to help adult with disabilities
Daniel Creech doesn’t talk much. When he does, it packs a punch.
Creech doesn’t have to talk to communicate how he feels. When he’s excited, his eyes shine. And when he’s happy, his contagious, full-throated laugh draws in anyone who is near.
His friends and professional relationships at United Ability, the Birmingham nonprofit agency that serves people with disabilities, are alternately charmed and amazed at what Creech, 43, can do, despite his significant physical disabilities. Since birth, cerebral palsy has severely limited Creech’s motor skills, making it impossible for him to walk, talk or use his hands.
Creech uses technology to access almost all parts of his life. He uses a head array to drive his new motorized wheelchair and communicates by using a speech-generating device produced by Tobii-Dynavox. This device tracks Creech’s eye movements and predicts the words and phrases as he begins to type and then generates them as spoken words, giving Creech his voice.
Using the eye-gaze-enabled keyboard appears easy, but it can be very tiring for the user, said Alyssa Scharf, a speech language pathologist at United Ability. “Daniel makes it look flawless.”
And now, thanks to the creative minds at Hoover High School’s Engineering Academy, Creech’s world is opening up even more.
A student team of four from the academy worked closely with Creech and his support team at United Ability to design a headpiece that Creech uses to perform several tasks more efficiently. The headpiece, combined with Creech’s other technologies, has moved him closer to a personal goal: landing his dream job as a front desk receptionist at a school.
In an interview, Creech said the headpiece makes it much easier for him to perform his current jobs at United Ability, where he spends five days a week as both a client and paid employee. One job is to shred confidential correspondence and medical files at “Gone for Good,” United Ability’s document-destruction company that employs agency clients. Creech’s other job: serving as a receptionist at United Ability’s Community Integration Academy, a facility at the agency’s Birmingham campus.
“I really like my new helmet,” Creech said. “It is much better because it is lighter. It really is comfortable now because my neck doesn’t get tired. The students at Hoover High School took the old design and created something that really meets my needs.
“I am able to move things easier, like when things get in my way on the table. The new design makes it easier for me to do my job, which is important.”
In a recent, socially distanced gathering at United Ability, Creech was able to personally thank one member of the student team and the teacher who heads the engineering academy. COVID-19 restrictions had prevented the group from gathering until now.
“I want to say, thanks very much for taking the time to create a better helmet for me,” he told former Hoover High student Andrick Raschke, now a student at Jefferson State Community College, and engineering academy teacher Robert Nidetz. “I know it took a lot of work. Thank you for getting to know me and helping me meet my goals.
“I want technology that helps me access the world around me,” Creech added. “I want to be very independent so that I can help other people.”
Raschke said of the headpiece, “I’m really happy with it, as long as Daniel is happy.” He said the student team, which included Seth Davis, Christopher Upton and Garrett Hogan, began working on the project in fall 2019. By spring 2020, the group was closing in on a final design when COVID-19 forced the students to attend school remotely and put the project on pause. It wasn’t until fall that the device made its way to Creech for testing and tweaking.
“It really changed his life, it sounds like – and I couldn’t be happier,” said Raschke, who earlier this month got to watch Creech use the headpiece.
Nidetz said the engineering program at Hoover High takes students through a progressive course with a focus on “user-centric design.” He said the program encourages students to “work with individuals with unique needs to help develop products and solutions for their everyday lives.”
He said during their four-year journey through the academy, students learn about engineering principles, drawing and design, technical writing and computer programming, among other skills. And then, “we bring it all together” with entrepreneurship and product development.
Nidetz said the experience gained with Creech in designing his new headpiece has led to another project, in which students are developing a device for another person with similar needs.
Jill Smith, manager of vocational services at United Ability, said Creech’s new headpiece is several notches above the heavier, hotter and more clunky helmet Creech used before. Smith first visited with the Hoover engineering students in fall 2019 to see if they’d take on the task of designing a better device for Creech.
“I have to say, the team that we worked with – they were awesome,” Smith said. “They were so involved with Daniel himself, and really wanted to get to know Daniel, which was the really, really great part.”
Smith said Creech described to the students his work responsibilities and the pros and cons of his old headpiece – “exactly what he liked about it, how it felt,” and what he would like the updated device to be capable of doing to help him become even more independent.
Through that process, the Hoover team not only improved on the helmet but devised an improved wand that attaches to it. They also created a special attachment for the device, using computer software and a 3D printer, that makes it much easier for Creech to push a button to open the entrance door at the Community Integration Academy – which is part of his responsibilities as the receptionist.
Smith said the student-designed device has practical applications for other United Ability clients who can use it to better perform a variety of tasks.
As for Creech, he’s never been one to shy away from expressing himself, those who know him said. Before COVID, Creech was an eager public speaker and advocate for the services provided by United Ability – something he looks forward to continuing after the pandemic wanes.
At the recent gathering to celebrate the success of his headpiece, Creech relayed his life story. Born in Georgia and raised in part by his grandmother, he initially attended special-education programs but was soon able to join regular classes. He later moved in with his mother in Alabama and was referred in 2002 to United Cerebral Palsy in Birmingham, which in 2017 changed its name to United Ability.
Creech eventually moved into an adult group home. Today, he lives in his own apartment with his wife, Belinda, who also is a United Ability client. The two met at the agency and married in 2015. “It was the best day of my life,” he said.
While the number of clients United Ability can serve at its campus has been reduced during the pandemic – and has forced the agency to provide more virtual services – Creech and his wife continue to come to the agency for services and to work.
The gregarious Creech not only is active in his personal and professional circles; he is also involved with church and is prominent on Facebook, posting updates regularly. He also reads to children at United Ability’s Hand In Hand Inclusive Early Learning Program.
He said his new headpiece, combined with his other technologies, have helped him lift his abilities to greater heights, with the ongoing care and attention he receives from United Ability. The Alabama Power Foundation is among United Ability’s many supporters, along with United Way of Central Alabama.
“I have very good support at United Ability,” Creech said. “United Ability has helped me so much since I’ve been coming.”
Learn more about United Ability at https://www.unitedability.org/.
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)