I’ve been writing this column for close to two years now, and I officially have a new favorite gear hack. It involves spatulas and serving spoons, and it comes courtesy of Tyler Schrenk, a C1 quad and inveterate tinkerer. We’ve covered Schrenk and some of his adaptations in NEW MOBILITY before (Live Well, February 2019), but I wanted to dig a little deeper about how he adapts and invents with his limited hand and arm function.
The spatulas came up when I asked him where his process usually starts. “I don’t think, ‘What are some crazy, cool ideas?’ It’s mainly based off what I need to be independent,” he says. “A lot of this is so simple. Like with eating, I just mounted some spatulas and spoons to my wall, and I drive up and take bites off them. That allows me to eat when I’m by myself.”
Brilliant. The reason I love this hack is that it gets to the essence of Gear Hacks: showing that accessibility modifications don’t need to be complicated or expensive — they just need to solve a problem. For wheelchair users, the process of DIY inventing and adapting often follows the premise of “user-centric design,” which puts the need, rather than the product, at the core of the design focus. I asked Schrenk to share his process, and what he came back with jumps right off the page of design textbooks.
Start with a Need
Ask yourself, “What task do I want to be able to complete more independently or with greater ease or efficiency?” Then break down that task into its component pieces; this is a critical, if easily overlooked, part of the design process. What parts of a task can you already do? What parts do you need assistance with?
Take getting a bite of food to your mouth. Schrenk can open his mouth, chomp, chew and swallow. He can move his head on a limited plane and move his body using his wheelchair. Focusing on those abilities allowed him to design a much simpler solution than a robotic feeding arm or something similar. Instead of needing an apparatus to take a bite of food from a bowl or plate to his mouth, he just needed a way to elevate his food to a location he could roll up to and bite from.
Generate and Research Ideas
Before designing anything new, Schrenk likes to brainstorm alternative uses for products and devices he already has around his house. Spatulas and serving spoons already do a good job of holding food — no need to reinvent there. What was a big problem now essentially boils down to securement: How do I secure these apparatuses at a height and angle that works for me?
Schrenk will keep a problem marinating in his head — letting ideas come to him, then going to the computer to research the feasibility of various solutions to decide whether they’re worth pursuing or discarding. It can take months before he finally has an idea worth moving to prototype stage.
We often think of the making as the core of inventing or adapting, but it’s just a small part of the overall process. And really, making a physical product is just one part of the prototyping process. Prototyping starts with sketching out your idea into graphic form. What once was done with pencil and paper is now often done in the digital realm, a boon for those with limited or no hand function. An eye-tracking or sip-and-puff mouse and a free CAD program like TinkerCad, Sketchup or many others can give you everything you need to produce reliable renderings of your ideas.
Schrenk is lucky enough to have a mechanical engineer for a brother, and he does the making/manufacturing for most of Schrenk’s projects. But finding someone who is willing and capable to help out is easier than ever, thanks to organizations like Makers Making Change, which will help connect disabled designers with makers willing to help with projects. Many of the communication skills used to direct personal assistants are the same you’ll need to help a maker “see” your idea the way you do.
For the self-eating project, Schrenk was able to repurpose the serving utensils, a telescoping pole and some gooseneck arms that he’d been using to hold other items around his house. The only part that had to be made was a mounting board, a piece of trim wood that his brother cut and screwed into the kitchen wall so they could clamp the arms at the right height.
Test, Fail, Redesign, Test Again
Like life in general, failure is a valuable part of the design process. It lets you see what works and what doesn’t as you progress toward your goal. After prototyping, part of your idea or the system as a whole will probably fail. Don’t be discouraged — new technologies NEVER work perfectly the first time around.
Schrenk’s simple spatula holder started as an even simpler idea. “At first, I thought about just cutting out holes in a cardboard box and setting [the spoons held in the box] on my shelf,” he says. He realized that wouldn’t be stable enough, so he went back to the idea stage. Testing can send you back to generate ideas multiple times, and that often just leads to a prototype that needs tweaking to work as you’d envisioned. Sure, it can be frustrating, but the process of slowly chipping away at a puzzle, evolving an idea until it finally works is incredibly satisfying.
Schrenk has made a movement out of his passion by running the TSF Foundation, which is dedicated to facilitating independence through assistive technologies. A lot of the hacking he does involves modern electronics — like using an Alexa speaker to open your front door or control the thermostat.
Whatever the level of technology and whatever your function, the hacking process stays remarkably similar — it’s all about breaking down the things you want to do into manageable chunks, and then finding, adapting or making a tool to get you past the trouble spots.