URI students redesign toy cars to benefit children with disabilities

KINGSTON, R.I.: Who doesn’t remember the simple joy of zipping around the yard in a toy car? Every kid should have that experience, and thanks to Lil’ Rhody Riders — an ongoing student leadership project at the University of Rhode Island — they can.

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From left, Alaa Eid, Celia Dunn and Mia Mitchell. (Lil’ Rhody Riders photo)

Lil’ Rhody Riders provides mobility, freedom and plain-old fun to children with disabilities by modifying toy cars so they can operate them. Annie Kostenbauer and Cara Pineau, doctoral students in physical therapy in the College of Health Sciences/Academic Health Collaborative, are leading Lil’ Rhody Riders this year. They are designing and building four cars with help from College of Engineering students.

Their first car, for a boy with cerebral palsy, has proven challenging on several fronts. “His legs and arms have trouble bending, and he’s very tall and thin,” said Kostenbauer, of Monument, Colo. “He can’t fit in the car, so we made a seat on top of it.”

Kostenbauer and Pineau noted that getting it right matters because the car is more than a plaything. It provides therapeutic benefits. “The main goal (of this car) would be to get him to develop the flexion to bend his knees and his elbows,” said Pineau, of Little Compton.

Biomedical engineering students Miranda Mitchell of Merrimack, N.H., Alaa Eid of Coventry and Celia Dunn of Jericho, Vt., pitched in with Lil’ Rhody Riders as part of their capstone projects. They created a push-button that acts as a gas pedal because the child with cerebral palsy has better control with his upper body. It automatically breaks when he releases the pressure.

Some vehicles are controlled by a joystick so a child can work on fine motor skills; push buttons help children who lack the dexterity to turn a wheel; and lateral supports ensure safety and bolster the trunk and pelvises of children who need that, Pineau said.

The team also built a car for a child with spina bifida referred by Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence. “We put the gas pedal behind his leg so he has to push back. He’s a little weak with that, so we want to strengthen him,” Kostenbauer said.

That child took his first ride in the car last week in Kingston.

Two other cars were given to Meeting Street in Providence, a nonprofit organization that educates children with special needs.

The students begin by assessing each child and measuring flexibility, strength, motor skills and range of motion. They also talk to parents about their goals for the child’s development. “In class you have case studies, but when you have the person in front of you, it’s easier,” Kostenbauer said.

After that, construction begins. Pineau and Kostenbauer have learned to use drills and saws and problem solve as they go. “We’re definitely showing some girl power, “Pineau said of the all-female team.

The children get behind the wheel for the first time during Lil’ Rhody Riders’ Day of Play planned for late spring. “It’s very rewarding just seeing the kids being able to play,” Pineau said.

The students publicize the program on Facebook and rely on donations and fundraisers to purchase the cars (which cost between $200 and $400 each) and materials.

In 2015 Sandra Maliangos and Coral Hines, then doctoral students in physical therapy, launched Lil’ Rhody Riders. Each year two new students in the program take over.

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