It was a relatively straightforward project, Allison Noyes ’12 G’15 remembered. For one of her Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT) classes, the assignment was to construct a piece of adaptive equipment. These are objects with a function-driven design, often to assist people with disabilities in their daily tasks.
In the creative process, Noyes remembered her fieldwork with a girl confined to a wheelchair, afflicted with cerebral palsy. Her tremors prevented drinking from a vessel without spilling.
“The girl didn’t want others to think that she couldn’t do it,” Noyes remembered. “She was 11 at the time—that age where she wants to be independent.”
Over the course of that fieldwork, Noyes worked with the girl’s occupational therapists. “I tried to think about what could be changed so that she could bring a cup to her mouth unassisted,” she explained. “We tried putting added weights around her wrist—but that was atypical. Yes, she could finally bring the cup to her mouth, but she had to be wearing devices to help.”
Necessity begets invention, as they say. When Noyes set out to build her class project, the memory of that little girl resonated. “I had never forgotten her,” she added.
Noyes’s project began with a mass-market fruit infuser water bottle. “It never really did work well for that purpose,” she said with a laugh. But while looking intently at the plastic container came a flash of insight. “I thought, if you could cut that bottle in half, you could have two chambers. Pretty much anything could be put in the lower compartment to adjust the weight to meet the user’s need.”
With some help from family and friends, Noyes customized that bottle. Two measuring cups sacrificed their handles for her device; a sports cup top—with an easy-to-drink-from mouthpiece—helps people with limited control of their mouth muscles, and a special textured spray paint (which Noyes admitted was originally to cover up the seam she made by cutting the bottle) allows for a special gripping surface.
Most importantly, keeping in mind that little girl, the device is designed to look a lot like a regular water bottle. “Time after time,” Noyes said, “we hear that OT patients don’t want to feel different from everyone else.”
Noyes said that the MOT faculty was intrigued by her design, and credits Bay Path’s Dr. Lori Vaughn and Dr. Karen Sladyk with pushing her to enter the project in this year’s prestigious Maddak Awards Competition for Product Design.
Maddak is the nation’s largest producer of adaptive equipment, what they call “Aids for Daily Living.” Their competition, in its 40th year, is a chance for students and professionals to compete in the design of products that have yet to be invented.
Noyes remembered that the timing of the awards couldn’t have been worse. “I had so much schoolwork to do, it was April. The semester was winding down. There were finals,” she said. But she was convinced by the MOT faculty. Why not, she remembered.
During the judging process in Baltimore, each participant held an open question and answer period at individual booths in the presentation hall. Noyes said one women kept coming back to ask about her bottle. “She asked a LOT of questions,” she remembers. “She took photos of me with the bottle. We had a conversation about the bottle’s use, and this person offered the idea that it would be useful for the elderly, also.”
Unbeknownst to Noyes, that inquisitive visitor was a member of the Maddak design team. Not surprisingly, Noyes was one of seven individual awards given that day—the People’s Choice Award. But the accolades don’t stop there.
As a winner in the competition, Noyes’s device, now known by the name Steady Sips Bottle, has a one year patent pending—which will be very helpful. As it turns out, Maddak intends to produce the Bottle to become part of their product line.
Noyes says she is immersed now not only in finishing out the last session of MOT class time and then her field placements, but also in assuming the role of inventor and entrepreneur. She has typed up a patent and engaged the services of a patent attorney. She is ready to go, full steam ahead.
With that temporary patent, Noyes has a year to hammer out the details of what will be a life-altering device for countless individuals. Thankfully, she said, she has the help of friends and family—she counts her father and her boyfriend as two tireless supporters.
But she says that the girl who inspired it all is one of the most important people in this whole process. She hasn’t had the chance to ever get back in touch with her—personal information during fieldwork is kept strictly confidential—but because of her, Noyes is where she is now.
“I hope one day she knows what an incredible impact she had on me.”