TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – After graduating from The University of Alabama on Dec. 10, five mechanical engineering students stayed in Tuscaloosa an extra week to perfect their senior design project — a mechanical wheelchair lift — before presenting it as a Christmas gift to a 10-year-old Tuscaloosa girl who is an incomplete quadriplegic.
“Rachel’s Lift,” a blue and white custom wheelchair lift with a Script A emblazoned on its side, was presented to Verner Elementary School student Rachel Williams at her home Wednesday afternoon.
For Rachel and her family, Christmas came early.
“Blue is my favorite color so I’m so excited they made it blue,” Rachel said. “It will make my life easier because it will be able to lift me, so my parents don’t have to.
“Getting this is like ordering something, but better. It’s the best Christmas gift I’ve ever had.”
Melissa Williams, Rachel’s mom, said she’s astonished that the recent engineering graduates could take the barebones concept they submitted and turn it into a built-from-scratch reality.
“It’s life changing for our family,” she said. “It’s like winning the lottery.”
Rachels’ dad, Chris Williams, said as Rachel grew, he became concerned that they may suffer an injury physically lifting her out of her wheelchair and transporting her to the bathtub, vehicle and other places.
But now that UA’s College of Engineering has gifted them with a custom lift, that worry has rolled off his strained shoulders.
“It has a boom that connects directly to her chair and can maneuver 180 degrees,” he said. “It’s not bulky or cumbersome, is portable and can be transported easily. We were very fortunate that it was able to come to fruition.
“The education and community outreach at the University is top-notch. It’s not just theory they’re learning over there but practical application.”
When Santa’s Elves Aren’t Enough, It Takes UA Engineering
The graduates who built the lift are Kate Radovich, Chloe Denorme, Casey Largin, Hunter Dowdy and Mason Janes.
In March, they were given the option of choosing a final design project before graduating. The wheelchair lift jumped off the list.
“We all had a shared interest in adaptive technology and ranked this one first,” Denorme said. “I started volunteering with people with disabilities back in high school in Ohio. I did adaptive snow skiing.
“I thought about how different pieces of equipment failed them or weren’t good enough. This project gave me an opportunity to continue in that type of work.”
Radovich said she started working with people with disabilities at her home church in Texas.
“I also got to tour a hospital making prosthetics and thought that was really cool, so I picked mechanical engineering as a major and biology as a minor so I could combine them in biomedical adaptive technology.”
Largin also had a history of working with adaptive technology. His granddad makes prosthetic limbs and builds wheelchairs, and his mother teaches special needs classes. The wheelchair lift senior project was right up his alley.
“For me, it was just a wonderful opportunity to help a wonderful family,” Dowdy said.
Janes said his cousin is an engineer who works in adaptive athletics. That piqued his interest in the project.
The Nuts and Bolts of Git’er Done
The project took more than nine months to complete. Denorme said the family had set specific parameters for the lift, namely that it had to attach to her wheelchair, be easily transportable, able to lift her 30 inches off the ground and lift 400 pounds.
To design the lift, the team used an old wheelchair donated from Children’s of Alabama as a model.
“We’re grateful to Children’s for giving us the chair,” Denorme said. “It couldn’t be used any more so we took it all apart, hacked at it and remade it to help us make our lift. We custom-made the lift’s aluminum baseplate that slides together and breaks down so it can be put in a bag for the family.
“We had a difficult time though getting the aluminum base welded so we took it to Fitz-Thors Engineering in Bessemer and they offered to machine it out of one piece of aluminum for us for free, which helped us tremendously.”
Legs were added for stability and a battery box on the back, which is how the lift is powered. An attachable sling is used to carry Rachel.
“This is something she’s going to be using every day of her life,” Largin said. “This will make it easier to do simple things.”
Dr. Paul Puzinauskas, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and the student challenge projects coordinator, said it’s rare for students to finish projects after getting their final course grade and graduating.
“We had to finish,” Denorme said. “The work wasn’t done yet. We had a little girl to keep a promise to.”