Columbia Students Build Life-Improving Devices for Kids with Disabilities

Cooking is one of Faith Slump’s favorite pastimes, but it’s been a challenge for the 10-year-old. Faith was born with achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism, and to use the stove, get items from the fridge, or pull mixing bowls out of the cabinets, she needs to move her heavy chair around the kitchen.

Faith’s mother, Maria Slump, heard about a project at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons that might be able to help: As part of their training, occupational therapy and physical therapy students in the school's Modifications and Assistive Technology course plan and build low-cost adaptive designs for local children.

A team of six students worked with Faith and came up with a solution—a lightweight step stool that she could easily move. The students painted it blue, her favorite color, and included a graphic of her dog Maple, a golden doodle.

The step stool, designed by a team of students in the Occupational Therapy—Modifications and Assistive Technology course, can be easily picked up and moved whenever Faith needs to use it.

“The students are fantastic. They asked the right questions and were interested in really getting to know what Faith’s needs were,” Maria Slump says. “They met her needs and her style and came up with this great idea that’s going to change her life.”

The students first performed a needs assessment, working with Faith to understand her priorities and which features of the device would be most beneficial.

“This was really our first experience working with a client, and it was really rewarding,” says Lindsey Novakovic, a student in the occupational therapy programs. “The one thing Faith really wanted to do was bake and cook with her mom, so we felt the step stool was the most crucial thing for her.”

The adaptive design course, offered for the first time in 2022, takes place over six weeks in the fall semester. The clients are identified through two not-for-profit organizations: the Manhattan Children’s Center, which offers treatment and education to children with autism spectrum disorder, and SKIP of NY (Sick Kids (Need) Involved People), which connects medically fragile and developmentally disabled children to services available in the city with the goal of reducing hospitalization and institutionalization.

This year, 51 OT students and nine PT students participated in the course, dividing into teams of six or seven to build designs. Rochelle Mendonca, PhD, assistant professor of rehabilitation & regenerative medicine, who teaches the course, considered feedback from students who took the course last year and built in additional time for the students to meet with their clients, to give the students a better understanding of the clients’ needs and to ensure the custom devices were a perfect fit.

Seeing how the devices benefited clients last year also helped Mendonca and the students identify children who would be a good fit for the program.

“We realized that while these devices were intended to address the clients’ physical impairments, they had other benefits as well,” Mendonca says. “Since the devices help keep children physically stable, they also help improve their attention, social interaction, eye contact, and so on. This year we opened the program to children with sensory and cognitive disabilities in addition to children with physical disabilities.”

Faith's step stool will make a variety of activities easier, from reaching light switches to washing hands.

Mendonca hopes that in the future the program can reach a broader population so students can serve more clients, including adults who cannot access devices or services through traditional means but could benefit from the projects to help them integrate into the community.


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Learn more about the Modifications and Assistive Technology course in the occupational therapy program at Columbia.