CHAPEL HILL - Getting permission to go to the bathroom during class can be trouble enough for healthy children, but imagine how much more difficult it would be if you couldn't talk.
That's one of Travis Ward's many challenges.
Travis was born with cerebral palsy -- a disabling neurological and motor skills disorder -- and a genetic error in metabolism. The upbeat 16-year-old Durham native can't run, can't ride a bicycle and can't perform countless tasks so many other children take for granted, including talking.
This spring, as part of their training, biomedical engineering graduate students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, worked to make Travis' daily life a little easier.
They designed and built a special battery-operated vest for him that includes pads with small chains he can pull when he needs to communicate with his Neal School teacher. When he pulls one, the vest plays a recording telling the teacher, "Yes." Another says, "No." A third pad says, "I'm thirsty. Can I get something to drink?" And a fourth says, "Hi. My name is Travis Ward." His teacher or parents can record other messages at any time, and more pads can be added as well.
"We spoke with special education teachers and therapists in the area to find out what sort of inventions they would like to have, but which did not exist," said Dr. Richard Goldberg, visiting professor of biomedical engineering at UNC-CH. "Then we researched the devices to make sure they did not exist and prepared a list of potential projects for graduate students to work on."
Goldberg, who earned his doctorate in biomedical engineering at Duke in 1994, teaches a class titled "Developing Custom Devices for the Disabled" for master's and Ph.D. students at UNC-CH's biomedical engineering department. Next spring, the class will open to applied science undergraduates.