Young boy using mechanical arm device to pick up orange slice

Massachusetts youth learns to feed himself with use of mechanical arm designed by UMass students

Ryan Wade, a former Head Start student thinks his new mechanical arm is “really, really awesome,” now that he is learning to feed himself grapes, pretzels and orange slices. The Head Start’s disability specialist made a referral that was life changing for Ryan and his family. UMass Amherst’s group of engineering students, working with a nursing student designed, built and tested an orthotic arm model and created a final version to help Ryan perform daily tasks that he was unable to do. He can now feed himself.

Ryan was born with a condition called multiple synostoses syndrome, a genetic abnormality that causes bones in fingers, elbows, feet and ears to fuse, affecting the movement of his joints. The condition affects his gait and other functions, but he was unable to bend his arms at the elbow; therefore he could not bring his hands to his face. So, until now, he was able to feed himself by using an 18-inch-long extension for his fork or spoon. But he could not wipe his mouth, blow his nose or brush his teeth. The device attaches to three bendable finger-like extensions that he uses to clutch an object and then, by manipulating a lever on the side of the arm, hoist it up to his mouth.

Ryan became connected to the UMass students through his involvement with the Parent-Child Development Center of Community Action of Franklin, Hampshire and North Quabbin Regions, where one staff member suggested to Frank Sup, a professor in the UMass mechanical and industrial engineering department that he might want to consider working with Ryan and his mom. It was a timely suggestion since UMass had recently received a five-year, $125,000 grant to work on projects to assist the disabled.

When Ryan returned to UMass Amherst to an engineering conference room where the student inventors and faculty gathered, he was offered cheese crackers. As he reached and grabbed them with his new mechanical arm, the inventors gasped with joy. According to Professor Sup, his students benefit greatly from seeing the impact of their engineering skills on the life of  a child and his family.