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Dad hacks wheelchair to let 2-year-old explore the world

A determined hacker dad builds a novel foot-pedal interface for a wheelchair so his son can control his own explorations for the first time.

Alejandro in wheelchair
Alejandro learning to drive his wheelchair.
Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET

Most 2-year-olds are toddling around, getting into everything they can reach. A little boy named Alejandro has the same desire to explore as any other kid, but his movements are limited by Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a degenerative genetic disease. He is a bright and social child, but his condition has left him physically very weak.

Wheelchair foot control
The foot pedals created for the wheelchair. (Click to enlarge.) Hacking SMA

Health insurance hasn't been much help, saying Alejandro will have to wait five years to get a powered wheelchair. That wasn't acceptable to his parents, so dad Shea took matters into his own maker hands. "Our best option was to for me to try to build something myself," Shea writes in his Hacking SMA blog documenting his family's experience.

The project started with an adult-size powered wheelchair purchased on eBay for $800. Shea modified the seat and had to pick up batteries. The biggest challenge was reworking how the wheelchair is controlled.

"Alejandro's toes, while quite weak, seem to respond faster to his motor intentions than his two working fingers, so I decided to focus my efforts there," writes Shea. Shea created a foot control through an epic hacking process detailed in a blog post. The process even included gutting a kitchen scale for parts.

The resulting foot pedal design is uniquely suited to Alejandro's abilities, and he has quickly learned how to operate the wheelchair. "His motivation is amazing. For a kid like Alejandro there is nothing quite like finally being able to explore your environment all by yourself," Shea writes.

Shea's hacking, engineering, and programming skills all came into play for the wheelchair project. It's a testament to a family's love, a child's determination, and a maker attitude coming together to make life roll along just a little more smoothly than it did before.

(Via Hack a Day)