Alejandro is a two-year-old with Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type I, a congenital neuromuscular disorder that makes him unable to use most of his body. His father, Shea Ako, writes that he wanted Alejandro "to be able to move through the world by his own volition" — but the family couldn't afford a custom-built powered wheelchair that would allow him to do so. So Shea took matters into his own hands.
Alejandro's condition means he can't operate a standard, off-the-shelf power wheelchair since his hands and feet aren't strong enough to guide a joystick. The family lives in the U.S., and their health insurance company told them it would be a five-year wait before they would pay for a custom chair, so Shea started looking for a used chair that he could modify.
He found an adult-sized power wheelchair on eBay for $800, and got to work adding a kid-sized seat and creating a new control surface that Alejandro would be able to operate. Shea told Strombo.com that the new chair has given his son a whole new way of looking at the world.
"The other day we took him to the park and the first thing he did was drive right up to a tree," Shea said via email. "He sat there under the tree for about five minutes just looking at it, from a perspective he'd never experienced before."
As for how the custom control works, the solution for building it came to Shea after the family's digital kitchen scale broke. While he was taking it apart, he realized that the highly sensitive mechanism in the scale would be able to detect minute movements in Alejandro's feet.
From there, he created sensor pedals using a pair of sandals glued to plexiglass panels, which Alejandro can slip his feet into. When he presses down with either foot, it controls the movement of the chair.
Shea told Strombo.com that in total, it took about six months to build the chair, although he believes he "probably could have finished in about two weeks, but life can be rather hectic between work and caring for a child with a disability."
He also said he and his wife wish he could spend more time working on technology like this, to help not only Alejandro but other kids:
"Our dream would be for me to be able focus all of my efforts on developing technologies to help Alejandro communicate and participate more independently in the world around him," Shea said.
"I see so many opportunities to help him and other children like him, sometimes it can be frustrating."
The video at the top of the post shows Alejandro's third time taking the new chair for a test drive outside of the house — at that point, he had been learning to use the device for about six weeks.
"It has been truly thrilling for us as parents to watch as Alejandro persistently works at learning to control his own movement in space," Shea writes on his site. "His motivation is amazing. For a kid like Alejandro there is nothing quite like finally being able to explore your environment all by yourself."