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Student-designed technology disables limitations

For many years 16-year-old Justin Kelley dreamed of being able to waterski with his family in the lakes around their home. When she is not studying or mentoring children with physical impairments, 24-year-old Robyn Stawski trains four days a week chasing her dream of competing in the Paralympics.
The dreams of Kelley and Stawski, both of whom have cerebral palsy, and other individuals with disabilities, were given flight thanks to a collaboration between the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Rehabilitation Engineering and Technology Program. As part of their coursework, 30 graduating seniors and 12 post-graduate students from the College of Engineering designed and built technology tailored specifically to meet the needs of individuals with disabilities. At a ceremony at Lifsey House on May 7 the completed projects were displayed and presented to three of the recipients.
A sit-ski was designed and built for Kelley that is tailored to his posture and will maintain stability in the water. Tammy Kelley, Justin’s mother, said she hoped the students who had designed the sit-ski could appreciate the difference their project would make to the life of her son.
“These students can hold their head high. They have done something for Justin not only today, not only for tomorrow, but for many years to come,” Tammy Kelley said. “This is something that is a dream for him. Right now, that smile on his face is worth everything.”
A field chair, which provides a solid base from which to throw javelin, discus and shot, was presented to Stawski, who said the chair would enable her to attain a higher standard of performance. Using the chair for the first time on May 4, Stawski placed second in the discus in an international challenge event.
“The field chair has allowed me to realize a new level in track and field and to let me compete at a new level,” Stawski said.
Lucy Aponte, who has cerebral palsy and autism, received a spin art machine, which will enable her to produce her own artwork. Milton Aponte, Lucy’s father, said he hoped proficiency on the machine would increase Lucy’s chances of obtaining employment.
Rehabilitation services was transferred to USF from the Department of Education in March 2001 as part of Gov. Jeb Bush’s policy of divesting public services into the private sector. Stephen Sundarro, associate director for RETP, said the relocation of the program to USF was proving to be serendipitous.
“If you solve one problem, that solves many problems. We provide services to individuals with disabilities, students get training, we’re able to serve the larger population,” he said. “We get new ideas all the time, and as a whole it fits in with the mission of the university, which is research education and public service.”
Tennyson J. Wright, vice provost, said the aims of the program conformed to the aims of the university.
“Long term, our mission is consistent with the mission of the university, and that is to achieve national visibility and national ranking as a Research I institution,” Wright said. “We see this program, this project, as fitting with that in every respect.”
Glen Besterfield, associate professor for the Department of Mechanical Engineering, paid tribute to the dedication of the students who had put in many hours of effort during their final semester. He said the students had to conceptualize their designs, complete full paper designs and construct the devices in just 15 weeks.
Graduating student Cyntra Sonnylal, one of the students responsible for the sit-ski, said the opportunity to actually build their designs made working on the project particularly rewarding.
“We’re going to give (the sit-ski) to Justin today. It was a huge accomplishment, something that we couldn’t have dreamt of when we were seniors,” Sonnylal said. “We felt we had a better experience because many classes in the past never had the chance to build their projects.”
Robert Gowlonia, a graduating student who worked on the spin art machine, said seeing the individuals receiving the rehabilitation technology made him realize the full extent of what he and the other students had accomplished.
“It really makes you feel that something you have done has changed the life of someone,” Gowlonia said.
Berthy De La Rosa-Aponte, the mother of Lucy Aponte, said the program represented an important step in increasing the employability and ultimately the status of disabled people in society.
“We are dreamers, and we do believe that everybody, regardless of disability, can learn and can have a meaningful life. Unless people with disabilities are employed, they will never be equal,” Aponte said.

Contact Chris O’Donnell at