Adapting a Car - A Case Study

Colson's Story

In the spring of 2017, LEARN’s Board, tech mentors and high school robotics team – The Red Hot Techie Peppers – built a car for Colson.  Colson was two and a half years old when we met him for the first time; he is a charming, sunny little boy who wanted desperately to play outside with his three brothers and neighborhood friends.  Because he was born with spina bifida, he cannot walk, and because of his age, his insurance will not provide him with a motorized wheelchair.  So, he could only sit and watch the other kids play.  We knew we could help!

We conducted a needs/wants analysis with Colson and his family, and we collected biometric data.  We learned that Colson needed:

  • Hand-controlled power – Colson needed a hand-controlled power switch on the perimeter of steering wheel or squeeze triggers to allow him to control his speed with his hands rather than his feet.  We added a small button under his right thumb on the steering wheel that delivers power when pressed.
  • A lighter-touch steering wheel – Most electric, toy cars’ wheels are just too stiff for Colson to easily turn; we adjusted the steering wheel’s motion to make it move more smoothly.
  • Wider/larger steering wheel – This car came with a steering wheel that has a wider-turning radius to make steering easier for Colson.
  • Full harness that to keep Colson safe and upright – We created a harness that goes around both shoulders, around waist and between Colson’s his legs (like those on a stroller) to keep him upright.  
  • Seat with high-back and wing-support – Colson not only needed good support to help him keep his back against the seat (since he can’t plant his feet to hold himself upright).  He also needed side-to-side support to prevent him from slipping sideways.
  • Adjustable seat – We built the seat so that it could be moved backward as Colson grows.
  • Lots of padding to protect his back from the plastic seat – Colson has a tender, protruding place in his lower back that might pain him if it were pressing against a hard surface like a plastic seat; so, we created a web-backed, foam-padded seat with a removable, washable cover.  
  • Good all-terrain wheels and off-road capabilities so that Colson could drive around his yard.  This car already had good balance and large wheels.  We added a rubber surface to the wheels to give them good grip.
  • Kill and throttle switches – We mounted these high and within easy reach of Mom and Dad so that they can override the car’s controls in case of an emergency.
  • A car with low sides – This car’s low sides may allow Colson to pull himself up on the sides of the car and pull himself into the seat as he grows.
  • Longer battery life – The batteries that come standard with these cars have a very short run time, a short lifespan and a long recharge period.  We purchased two, longer-life batteries; this allows Colson to drive for up to two hours on the first battery while the other charges.
  • Rear-view mirrors – To allow Colson to move in reverse safely.

We also wanted to provide Colson with a two-seat car so that he could drive about with this brothers and friends.  Even better, a two-seater would put Colson in charge for a change.  After considerable research, we chose the Power Wheels Dune Racer by Fisher-Price.  It met all our criteria; plus, it can carry loads up to 130 pounds.  This would allow Colson to drive his car for many years.

Modifying the car for Colson was a blast!  We rebuilt the car to meet all his needs, and we tricked it out with red, LED glow lights, rear-view mirrors and a head cushion with his name on it.  We wanted Colson to be the envy of his neighborhood!  And, now, he is.  His friends vie to be a passenger in Colson’s “buggy.”  

And, Colson was not the only one to benefit from this project.  Our high school team – though they have built dozens of world-class robots – said, “Building something that really changes someone else’s life is one of the coolest thing we have ever done.”  Our mentors and Board loved the project for the same reason.  We felt so lucky to have a chance to work on this project, and we think you will too!