A glasses-wearing bunny made of wood and copper. A colorful marble run. A wooden giraffe with an extendable neck.
These are just a few of the whimsical – yet functional – creations made by students at an "innovation" school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to encourage Eleanor, a 12-year-old at Perkins School for the Blind, to accept and use her eye prosthesis.
“By exposing her to things in a more play-based, game-based environment, it will normalize the interaction and she won’t be as sensitive with people putting things in her eye,” said Eleanor’s mother, Lynne.
Eleanor, a student in the Lower School, was born with low vision in both eyes, but her retina detached from her right eye when she was young. Her doctors recommend that she get a scleral shell, a plastic cover for the atrophying eye that maintains the orbit of the eye as her bones keep growing.
She was fitted for a scleral shell two years ago, but she’s still not ready to use it – despite lots of hard work by her parents and Donna Duggan Edwards, a Lower School Low Vision Clinic liaison at Perkins. Eleanor is highly sensitive about any touch around her eyes because of the numerous eye procedures she’s had since she was a baby.
Lynne decided to turn to the NuVu school, where her son attends. At NuVu, middle and high school students don’t follow a standard curriculum, but instead work collaboratively on projects. With access to 3-D printers, laser cutting machines, digital modeling software and more, they create innovative solutions to problems big and small.
“I thought if they could create something she could physically manipulate, like a doll, she could practice (putting the prosthesis in),” Lynne said.
Twelve students visited Perkins before starting their projects, where they learned about the history of the school as well as examples of assistive technology. They met Eleanor, and saw firsthand how Duggan Edwards worked to desensitize her to having her head, face and glasses touched. These activities simulated what any student might encounter at an eye-related appointment.
Duggan Edwards said it’s understandable why Eleanor is reluctant to use the scleral shell.
“To a child, it can seem as if all of a sudden someone starts trying to get something foreign in their eye when they’ve always been told to protect their eyes,” she said. “Eleanor may be thinking, ‘Now you expect me to just let you come close, pull my eyelid down and pop this thing in there?’”
Two weeks after the Perkins visit, the NuVu students presented several different toy and tool prototypes at their school. One of the prototypes was a bunny. Eleanor can touch its copper ears and cheeks, to mimic how a doctor might touch those areas during a visit. The eyes are hollow, so she can practice inserting a scleral shell.
The bunny also has removable purple glasses, Eleanor’s favorite color, and one lens includes a pocket where she can place the prosthesis. That way, when she puts on those glasses, she can practice putting the shell into something close to her eye without touching it.
The students offered several other solutions, including a giraffe with an extendable neck to help desensitize Eleanor to objects coming close to her face, a music box-type device to help her clean her prosthesis, and a petal crown to help her practice fine motor skills.
Thinking further outside the box, they also constructed a board with many different “eye” holes for Eleanor to practice inserting the shell, and a colorful marble run that simulates inserting a prosthetic eye at the top.
Duggan Edwards said she was very impressed with the creativity of the NuVu students – and their willingness to help students with blindness overcome challenges.
“The collaboration between schools provides opportunities for so many!” she said. “The possibility that some of these projects could be developed further to help many students is an added bonus.”
NuVu students said they enjoyed working on the project because it gave them an opportunity to make a real difference in one person’s life.
“I’d never met a visually impaired person before our visit,” said Drew, 17. “Seeing how Perkins empowered everyone, it just really inspired me. It’s great to make change in the real world.”