New technlogy helps fight spina bifida

July 14, 2009 5:49:35 PM PDT
Victims of a limiting disease are now being given freedom of movement thanks to improved technology. And they're able to take advantage of it in the earliest years of their lives.

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Because he has spina bifida, 22-month-old Andrew Peffley hasn't begun walking on his own. But he's already driving.

The typical age special needs kids get motorized mobility is usually at three to five years, but his mom Terri Peffley didn't want him to wait.

"I wanted him to be in the mix, live life and do all the things the other kids were doing," said Terry Peffley.

Peffley heard that robotics engineers at the University of Delaware had created the first infant sized motorized chairs. Engineers first tested the vehicles on normally developing children, who they found had a natural motivation to learn the controls.

"It's connected to the joy of life, moving where we want to and when we want to," said robotics engineer Cole Galloway, PhD.

Andrew learned to operate the chair at seven months. For safety, it can also be controlled remotely by an adult. When he outgrew the original chair, Andrew was fitted with a modified version of the adult power chair.

The Delaware team is now testing newer robots with sensors on the front and back to keep little ones from hitting obstacles.

With continued physical therapy, doctors expect Andrew to walk one day. In the meantime, his mother believes the temporary mobility he's achieving with the chair, will have an effect on the dreams she has for him later on.

"That he is happy, and successful in what he wants to do," said Peffley.

The new generation chairs will use sonar to improve their sensors. The development team is hoping to test them with volunteer families, and make them available commercially.

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