By Carolina Henriques
Lil’ Rhody Riders, a student project at the University of Rhode Island, is modifying toy cars so they can be operated by children with disabilities like cerebral palsy (CP) to enjoy mobility, freedom and fun, just like any other kid.
Lil’ Rhody Riders was launched in 2015 by Sandra Maliangos and Coral Hines, then URI doctoral students in physical therapy. Each year, two new students take the lead. This year, the project is being led by Annie Kostenbauer and Cara Pineau, also doctoral students in physical therapy.
They are designing and building four cars with help from three biomedical engineering students, Miranda Mitchell, Alaa Eid, and Celia Dunn. The first car is being built for a boy with cerebral palsy and the project is challenging for many reasons.
“His legs and arms have trouble bending, and he’s very tall and thin,” Kostenbauer said in a URI news release. “He can’t fit in the car, so we made a seat on top of it.”
The students began by assessing the child’s flexibility, strength, motor skills, and range of motion. They also talked with the parents about their goals for the child’s development.
The two PhD students noted that getting the car to work was more important than just for the child to play with, as it should also have therapeutic benefits.
“The main goal [of this car] would be to get him to develop the flexion to bend his knees and his elbows,” Pineau said.
With the help of the biomedical engineering students, the team was able to create a special push-button that acts as a gas pedal, which is helpful for children who have better control with their upper body. The button makes the car break automatically as soon as pressure is released.
Unlike joystick-controlled vehicles, push-buttons can help children who lack normal dexterity turn a wheel. Lateral supports help guarantee the child’s safety and bolster the trunk and pelvis of children.
Of the three remaining cars, one is for a boy with spina bifida, and the other two will be given to Meeting Street in Providence, a nonprofit organization that provides educational services for children with special needs.
The students organized a Lil’ Rhody Riders’ Day of Play to get children behind the wheel for the first time. The program will be publicized on their Facebook page and rely on donations to purchase the cars, which cost between $200 and $400.