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The Pivot, designed by Ashley Pigford with input from user Ewa
Okla, enables Okla to eat on her own. Her arm, which her muscles are
unable to raise, is suspended with a sling, and she can manipulate a fork using the mechanical Pivot.
toddler born without arms uses a spoon to feed herself, or an
11-year-old who cant hold a standard pencil signs his name for the
first time, or an independent young woman who is unable to lift her
hands eats without needing assistance from her friends or family, they
all have Ashley Pigford to thank.
The associate professor of art and design
at the University of Delaware, whose background is in graphic design,
has developed a creative specialization in the field of interaction
design. In Pigfords case, he works with children and young adults who
have physical conditions that limit their movement and daily activities,
designing and making innovative and affordable devices they can operate
on their own to function more independently.
Pigford credits the success of
these projects to the people he works with and their families, as they
provide him with feedback on the devices and work to develop the skills
they need such as using a foot switch to operate a robotic eating
utensil to use them. But its clear that Pigfords own ingenuity has
helped make a remarkable difference in their lives.
His innovative thinking and tenacity to solve problems has enhanced
the lives of some of my most challenging patients, said Maureen
Donohoe, a physical therapist and clinical specialist at Nemours/Alfred
I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware, who calls
Pigford a gem in the jewel box of life.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Ashley Pigford is
always on the lookout for available and affordable items he can
repurpose for the assistive devices he creates.
The hospital developed a working relationship with Pigford several
years ago, and he often collaborates with patients of Donohoes who have
unique challenges with activities of daily living. Many of the
patients, and young adults who are former patients of the hospital, have
a condition called Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita (AMC), which
results in decreased flexibility of their joints.
Ive developed relationships with doctors, therapists and families,
Pigford said, after being introduced to children with AMC by Michele
Lobo, assistant professor of physical therapy at UD. My focus is on
assisting with activities of daily living, like eating, using a
human-centered design approach.
When I work with one person and develop a device that addresses
their individual needs, I am then able to deduce solutions for others.
This is the human-centered approach solve for one, apply to many
that I find very successful.
His designs include a relatively simple gadget to attach a sippy
cup to a wheelchair, allowing a child to drink independently and on
their own schedule. A more complex device is enabling 2-year-old
Kahlani, who has no arms, to press a button on her highchair with her
foot and maneuver a spoon or fork to feed herself from a bowl on the
chairs tray. In addition to being able to feed herself, Pigford noted,
the process is also helping the toddler become more dexterous with her
feet, a skill that could help her manipulate other assistive tools
throughout her life.
One thing Pigfords devices have in common is that, whenever
possible, they are made from off-the-shelf items that are fairly
inexpensive. In this way, many of the devices he creates can be made by
other people when he provides parts lists and instructions. However, the
way he uses things is testament to his unique design abilities.
I typically seek out alternative uses for things in the world, he
said. Photographic clamps and tripods can be used to hold electronic
devices, or a flexible desk lamp can be used to lift a sippy cup. Ive
always been like that looking for things that can be adapted to other
For Ewa Okla, who was treated at DuPont Childrens Hospital as a
child and now works full-time for a health insurance company and tutors
in the evenings, learning about Pigfords work has been a boost to her
lifestyle, which was already quite independent. Born with AMC, she is
unable to lift her arms and uses a sling that resembles an oversized
rubber band to hold her hand in position so that she can type.
I dont require a lot of equipment, and I can type about 35 words a
minute with one hand using the sling, so I do fine at work, Okla said.
But I cant feed myself, and when I started a new job, I especially
didnt want to be dependent on my co-workers at lunchtime.
Donohoe referred her to Pigford, who designed a device they call
The Pivot. With it, Okla can use her hand that is already held up by her
sling to lift food with a mechanical fork and eat on her own. Pigford
has built many prototypes, and she has worked with him to fine-tune the
device. The Pivot is quick, convenient and portable and gives her the
ability to eat a variety of foods picking up a sandwich or a slice of
pizza doesnt work too well with a spoon, for example that more
expensive commercial devices dont always offer, she said.
Working with him has been a great experience, and I think he
appreciates that I can give him the kind of feedback that really young
children cant, Okla said. Hes been open to all the ideas Ive come
up with, and I hope we can keep working on other projects.
Pigford is part of UDs MakerNetwork
for students, faculty and staff and is co-director of the Interaction
Design Lab. Students majoring in everything from engineering to health
sciences and entrepreneurship are welcome to contribute to projects, he
This kind of work is directly helping an individual, and it makes a
real difference, especially because autonomy is such a big issue for
people with disabilities, Pigford said. I feel like everything I do in
this area is time well spent.
To hear more from Pigford and see some of his devices in use, view this video.
Article by Ann Manser; photos courtesy of Ashley Pigford; video by Ashley Barnas
Published Oct. 8, 2020