The MacGyver of Assistive Technology

“Don’t mush the sandwich.”

While this might sound like homespun culinary wisdom, for Dr. Therese Willkomm it is a guiding principle. As Director of Assistive Technology at the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability, Willkomm wants to teach everyone to be able to craft extraordinary solutions for individuals with disabilities using nothing more than low cost materials, everyday tools and common sense.

“When someone is in front of you and they don’t have the use of their hands and arms and they want to eat a sandwich, I think how can I create something that will hold the sandwich without too much tension on the bread so the insides don’t get mushed,” says Dr. Willkomm.

If this were a TV medical drama, we’d cut to a montage of a doctor and engineer designing prosthetics on a high-tech computer, followed by shots of the steel parts being welded together until finally the shiny sandwich holder is presented to the now happy patient. But this is real life and Dr. Willkomm insists that engineers and specialized materials aren’t necessary.

In Willkomm’s world, assisted technology devices are made on the spot in five minutes or less and with only five dollars’ worth of materials. This 5×5 approach might earn her the nickname “the MacGyver of Assistive Technology,” after the instant gadget-making 80s super spy. Present her with any problem and faster than it takes to get a coffee at Starbucks you have an AT solution made with everyday household tools.

When faced with a boy who was having trouble communicating with his classmates, Willkomm crafted a camera mount for his wheelchair using only a plastic flagpole holder, epoxy putty, and Pam cooking spray.

Her desire to build and help others began organically. Growing up a farm in Wisconsin, Willkomm watched her father use a piece of bubble gum to fix a hole in a gas tank. It was a “Eureka” moment. Problems, she discovered, could be fixed on the spot without using costly parts or wasting time.

Speed and low cost are crucial to her mission. “Millions of dollars are spent every year on assisted technology solutions that don’t work. The failure rate is very high,” Willkomm points out.  Her experience has taught her that to make devices that are truly effective consumers have to be engaged in the fabrication and design. This is why rapid prototyping on the fly is so important. Tweaking is where the magic happens.

Dr. Willkomm has found that anyone armed with only ten basic hand tools and a small variety of materials such as corrugated plastic, acrylic, ridged foam insulation, PVC pipe, flagpole brackets, and loc-line, can craft a virtually endless variety of solutions within minutes.

Her pioneering approach works wonders in the classroom. Recently she was working with a teacher whose student could not grip a pen to interact with his iPad. There was no money in the school budget for an elaborate accommodation so Dr. Willkomm rolled up her sleeves. In a matter of seconds using extra long twist ties, she created a simple criss-crossed loop that held the pointer firmly in place on the student’s baseball cap therefor enabling him to use the pointer to engage his device. The solution was simple, inexpensive, and most importantly quick.

Timing is of the upmost importance. Watching people take the long and expensive road to invention drives her crazy. “I love to watch Shark Tank,” she says of the ABC show where aspiring entrepreneurs pitch products to a panel of potential investors. “I think to myself I could make that for five dollars.” And she could do it during the commercial break.

To see hundreds of her inventions check out her book: Assistive Technology Solutions in Minutes Book II: Ordinary Items, Extraordinary Solutions.