Drew McPherson in Jacobs HallDrew McPherson in Jacobs Hall. (Photo by Noah Berger)

EnableTech: Engineering for accessibility

October 20, 2015 by Denise Bui

After a long day of classes, all Drew McPherson wanted was to lie in bed, pull over the covers and rest, but the noise outside his open window made that near impossible. For most people, the quick fix would be to get up and close the window. But for McPherson, a mechanical engineering senior who has used a wheelchair since he was injured in a river-diving accident, it wasn’t so simple.

So he set about devising a solution, conceiving of a motorized window opener that operates remotely from his mobile phone. He introduced his design last month at the opening of Jacobs Hall, now home to the Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation and the new hub of all things design on campus.

“I have been watching the DIY and maker movement over the past 10 years,” says McPherson, “trying to learn as much as I can to create new assistive devices to become more independent myself and to help others gain independence.”

Now, McPherson has teamed up with mechanical engineering Ph.D. student Kevin Haninger (B.S.’12, M.S.’15 ME) and cognitive science student Francisco Peralta to launch EnableTech, an interdisciplinary student group that aims to design solutions that minimize the difficulties of disability. Originally called Engineering for Accessibility, the group changed its name to attract members from all across campus.

McPherson met Haninger last year, after Haninger’s return from a workshop at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Captivated by the research on prostheses, assistive devices and physical therapy he saw there, Haninger wanted to be part of something similar at Berkeley. He was particularly inspired by the direct testing with potential users that he witnessed at the workshop, and he brings this same human-centered design ethos to EnableTech team projects.

“The idea is to work in groups directly with a student who has a disability,” says Haninger.

Peralta has been working on an innovation for prosthetic wearers like himself. Born without a femur, Peralta uses an electronic prosthetic leg, which is powered by motors drawing energy from a rechargeable battery that may last up to three days on a single charge. “If I forget to charge it overnight, the battery can run out and I’d just be stuck,” he says.

His solution: a prosthetics cover that doubles as an external charger. He plans to showcase a 3-D-printed prototype at the upcoming 2015 San Diego Triathlon, a fundraising event for the Challenged Athletes Foundation (where he will also be swimming one mile for his relay team).

EnableTech member Maxwell Seltzer, an economics and political science student, is working on the group’s business model. As in industry, team projects will follow timelines and multiple design reviews, including a final project review and self-evaluation.

“Ultimately,” says McPherson, “I’d like to see our group bring in other students with disabilities and build a community resource, because every person is creating their own individual solutions without a way to share them. We hope EnableTech can be a resource for students to come up with ideas and well-built solutions.”

EnableTech meets on Wednesday evenings in Bridges Lounge, across from Kresge Engineering Library in Bechtel Hall. The student group is open to all Berkeley students; for more information see Facebook and CalLink.