Improving Kyle’s quality of life

Published in January 2023

After years of collisions in her wheelchair and frustrating repair waiting periods, Kyle is enjoying greater independence thanks to a custom-designed wheelchair joystick.

Northcott resident, Kyle loves her independence, but for several years she has had difficulties getting around in her wheelchair. Due to her disability, Kyle has uncontrollable tremors that cause her to lose control of her chair, often colliding with furniture and people in her path, injuring herself and others, as well as damaging her chair. Her customised wheelchair is constantly in need of repair, meaning she has to use alternative aids, including manual wheelchairs or power chairs not suitable for her needs.

“For Kyle to be out of her chair causes her to be upset. She can get frustrated, and it limits her access to the community,” explains Aaron, the Service Coordinator in the Northcott home where Kyle lives. “I’d rather be able to do things but if they take [my chair] away I’m stuck,” says Kyle. With many unsuccessful attempts at improving the situation, Aaron turned to Northcott Innovation (NI), a subsidiary of Northcott that uses human-centred design to find solutions for the challenges faced by people with disability.

Aaron, Sam, Michael and Kyle

The solution

Aiming to give Kyle a higher quality of life by enabling her to drive her chair more safely and independently, NI identified that Kyle needed a different way to control her wheelchair. The team reached out to UTS Rapido, who were able to bring their engineering and design-thinking skills to the project. With NI coordinating involvement from Kyle, her support staff and therapists, the Rapido team was able to observe Kyle and understand the issue. They developed several concepts, before settling on a low-tech magnetic toggle solution. The team then measured the power of Kyle’s tremors and matched it to various magnetic variations, testing prototypes internally along the way.

“We’ve developed a joystick, which intentionally comes apart when it’s overloaded,” explains Dr Michael Behrens, Principal Delivery Manager at the UTS Rapido.

“When you push the joystick harder than you’re supposed to, it breaks away and then the chair comes to rest. When everything’s settled down, you can clip it back on again.”

After hours of testing and countless prototypes, (plus many months of COVID-19 lockdowns), Michael delivered a 3D printed solution to Kyle in June. After a few false starts, Kyle quickly worked out how to control the joystick, realising it intentionally would come apart, but is easily reattached. She was soon zipping around her home independently.

What the team thought

“I’ve known Kyle a long, long time and through ups and downs. I know this issue with the wheelchair constantly gets her frustrated and quite upset. To see something new that will give her the opportunity to go out and spend more time outside and do the things that she wants to do almost brought me to tears.”
– Aaron, Service Coordinator

“It was amazing. I’m so pleased that the solution worked for Kyle. I think that we’ve got a solution that will mean Kyle can be more independent in the weeks, months, years ahead. She can get back out in the community, get to the club, which is one of her favourite places to go, and live a great life.”
– Samantha Frain, Executive Director, NI

“It’s always great when we see a solution come together, but this time I got a great sense of satisfaction because of the vast benefit that it can have for Kyle and her quality of life.”
– Dr Behrens

This project was made possible thanks to a Social Impact Grant from the UTS Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion, an in-kind contribution from Northcott Innovation and donations from Northcott donors.

Watch the video below to listen to Kyle, Sam, Michael and Aaron speak about Kyle’s new toggle.