Designing Independence: UA Students Modify Power Wheels for Children with Disabilities

Students from the Biomedical Engineering Design and NASA Robotics teams worked with Inclusioneers to provide children with toy car adapted to their physical capabilities.


(Image via The University of Akron)

Sophomores Hanna Mackey (left) and Megan Bruns contributed work to all eight adapted Power Wheels vehicles, each one needing to fit specific needs and capabilities. For the vehicle pictured here, Mackey and Bruns built a desktop with a push-button that controls the vehicle. It was customized for a child named Oscar (center).

By Megan Parker, Copy Editor

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once asked, “Life’s most urgent question is: What are you doing for others?”


Students from the Biomedical Engineering Design and NASA Robotics teams at The University of Akron answered this question through customizing electric toy cars for local children with physical disabilities.


According to a University press release, the student teams from the College of Engineering redesigned controls, settings and more features of eight Power Wheels vehicles as part of a workshop called “Adapt-A-Car” by Inclusioneers.


Inclusioneers is a nonprofit organization in Summit County that works toward providing mobility and increased independence to individuals whose disabilities otherwise hinder those areas.


(Image via The University of Akron)
Team members David Klett (left), Shawn Sharratt, Seth Carpenter, Kelly O’Neill and Luke Schmitt adapted a Power Wheels “Wild Thing” vehicle, a 360-turning model that features a two-wheeled designed with the operator sitting in a seat between each tire, controlling the vehicle with two joysticks.

“At Inclusioneers, we envision a place where people of all abilities can enjoy public facilities, events and activities with their families, enlarging their social community,” their website said.


The eight adapted Power Wheels cars were given to local children on March 15 at Lock 3 Park in Downtown Akron during Inclusioneers Adapt-A-Car Inclusion Day event.


According to the press release, the Adapt-A-Car program focuses on making mechanical and electrical modifications to Power Wheels cars that are originally designed for children ages 1-6 without disabilities.


Team Efforts Lead to Results


Sophomores Hanna Mackey of Seville and Megan Bruns of Brunswick worked with physical therapists to design the best adaptations for each car in order to fit the capabilities of the children receiving them, according to the press release.


“For example, limited movement in the arms or legs proved a need for modified seating, steering, or acceleration. Other disabilities required more support in some areas than a standard car would provide (such as leg or forearm support),” the press release said.


Other modifications that needed to be made include steering and acceleration through a joystick or buttons on the steering wheel, desktop controls for easier to reach controls and adaptive seating.


Wheelchair and mobility equipment companies Miller’s Rental and Sales, Inc. and Numotion customized the adaptive seats used for the Power Wheels cars.


Bruns, a second-year biomedical engineering major, said it was amazing having the ability to help Akron children with disabilities as part of her career at UA.


“Watching this project help children has shown me that pursuing biomedical engineering is the right track for me,” Bruns said. “Being able to help solve or better medical problems for people is what I want for my future career and Adapt-A-Car helped me realize that.”


Mackey, a second-year exercise science major, also said she enjoyed the experience of working with the Adapt-A-Car and is thankful for having the opportunity as a UA student.


“This project has helped me realize my passion for rehabilitation and pediatrics, and has led me to pursue physical therapy school upon graduation,” Mackey said. “This project has not only been fun, but has furthered my development in skills such as communication, work ethic and dedication.”


Putting Skills to the Test


Three students from UA’s NASA Robotics team adapted one of the Power Wheels “Wild Things” vehicle for any person with a physical disability in Akron-based Cub Scout Pack #3310, the press release said.


A member of Akron-based Cub Scouts Pack #3310 test drives the Power Wheels “Wild Thing” vehicle student engineers redesigned with controls that make it easier to drive, along with a new seat.

“Wild Thing” car is a two-wheeled design controlled by two joysticks with a 360-turning radius, with the operator seat between each wheel. The two joysticks were replaced with a single 3D-printed joystick for easier control.


“The team even developed its own programming for the vehicle with additions that included a proximity alarm (with its own on/off switch) to warn the user and others if a collision may occur and a speed control dial to speed up and slow down as needed,” the press release said.


Efforts between Inclusioneers and the engineering students were coordinated by:


  • Shawn Sharratt, a third-year biology major from Medina.
  • Kelly O’Neill, a fifth-year electrical engineering major from Greensburg, Pa.
  • David Klett, a fourth-year computer engineering major from Wooster.
  • Seth Carpenter, a fourth-year computer engineering major from Medina.
  • Luke Schmitt, a fifth-year mechanical engineering major from Chicago, Ill.

According to Klett, the ability to use skills from the classroom to help another person was an amazing opportunity, as well as “a duty as the builders/innovators to contribute directly to the benefit of our local community.”


Many Lessons Offered through Projects


Carpenter, who served in an advisory role for the team and led logistics, said the project helped him learn more about the difficulties faced by people with disabilities and hopes he could do more to help.


UA students and Inclusioneers have been partnering on projects since 2015 and the Adapt-A-Car workshop since 2017, the press release said. Mike Firtha ‘76, a UA alumnus, founded the organization.


“Inclusioneers has a charitable mission to provide inclusive engineered solutions to help the disenfranchised enjoy the same facilities, events and activities that are commonly taken for granted by the mainstream population,” Firtha said.