e-NABLE Community Comes Together to Help Children With Limb Differences

To many, Facebook is simply for catching up with friends or playing games. For one mother, though, a post in a Facebook support group opened a door to boosting confidence in her son, one of the 1,500 children born each year with an upper-limb reduction.

A post created by Jon Schull, co-founder of the e-NABLE community, caught Melina Brown’s eye. Brown is now the matching coordinator for the global organization, which helps create and design 3D-printed hand and arm prostheses for people of all ages.

“After seeing Jon’s post offering another mother the opportunity to obtain a hand for her child, I began to do a little research to see what it was all about. When I read through the stories of kids e-NABLE had helped, I was just amazed,” Brown explained. “Later that night, I completed the intake form and joined the Google+ community. A couple of weeks later, there was a post asking for volunteers to help the matching team, and I knew it was something I wanted to help with.”

What Is e-NABLE?

In 2011, a carpenter in South Africa contacted a prop maker in the United States after seeing his hand design on the Internet. He wondered if it was possible to make the prop function to aid people with hand and limb injuries or differences. After collaborating, the two created a prosthetic hand device for Liam, a young boy in South Africa.

The seven-year-old was born missing all fingers on his right hand, but with his prosthetic device, Liam now has better balance when riding his bike, can hold a tennis racket, and can grasp a cup with the 3D-printed hand.

“He was the first child to ever receive an e-NABLE assistive device, and it has not only changed his own life, but because of his determination to practice with each new design and give feedback to his designer, he has made it possible for hundreds of other children to have these devices as well,” Brown said.

This also includes Brown’s son. “As a mom, I know that I was able to finally answer the question my child asked: ‘Is there anything that can help me?’ I was able to give him a device that somehow makes it a little easier to be at peace with what is normal for him,” Brown elaborated. “And on the days he feels a little sensitive, he puts on this really cool hand that can help him ride his bike with two hands, and it gives him that boost that he needs so he knows it is going to be OK.”

How Are the Prostheses Made?

A community of over 4,000 volunteers, growing at a rate of 100 per week, donate their time and talents to make e-NABLE successful. To date, they’ve provided 700 devices to people all over the world, ranging in age from just three to 86 years old.

Each prosthesis is made from plastic with a 3D-printing machine and open-source designs developed by e-NABLE volunteers that anyone can download and use.

Peter Binkley, a veteran designer at e-NABLE who also has a son who uses a prosthetic device, says the printing process is actually pretty simple. “It’s like having a hot glue gun (called an extruder) on a horizontal carriage. The carriage can move in three dimensions relative to a print bed. When you hit the print button, plastic filament is pushed through the extruder, where it melts and is deposited onto the print bed. The printer builds layer upon layer until the whole object has been built,” Binkley explained.

Later, screws and Velcro are used to finish the medically sound devices, which are reviewed by occupational therapist Jean Peck and muscle physiologist Jorge Zuniga, both at Creighton University. More than 30 more certified prosthetist orthotists and occupational therapists are involved in the e-NABLE community, as well.

Binkley says the simplicity and cost-effectiveness of 3D printing makes it economically viable to upgrade prostheses as the user grows. “This is particularly good for children, who know that when they outgrow their devices, it is cheap and easy to print another at a slightly larger scale, just as they replace their shoes,” Binkley added.

Who Is Making This Happen?

e-NABLE volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds, including tinkerers, engineers, 3D-print enthusiasts, occupational therapists, university professors, designers, parents, families, artists, students, and teachers. Thanks to their generous donations of talent, time, and supplies, all e-NABLE devices are provided at no cost to the recipients. The materials used to make the devices range in price from $20 for hands to upward of $150 for arm prostheses, the costs of which are offset by fundraising and donations.

The e-NABLE community currently needs volunteers to help with behind-the-scenes clerical tasks and always appreciates monetary donations so they can further their reach.

“Watching my own son blossom from his experiences keeps me going,” Brown explained. “Parents also should consider that e-NABLE isn’t just about printed plastic and Velcro and screws. It is about people. Become active and meet other parents and volunteers. e-NABLE can be a second family of sorts. Many of us share the same experiences; we’ve cried the same tears. I think that has been what has made this so special for my family. We have connected with so many involved with e-NABLE. It is kind of like coming home.”

Image source: e-NABLE