Giving Out Helping Hands

Field NotesThe Frontier

A quick note about this section

The creative process is one of constant discovery. You’re always looking for new ways of seeing, thinking and doing. Along the way, some things stand out and we put them in our Field Notes. This is a collection of ideas, places, people and things that we’ve found that we think are worth sharing and that all loosely fit within the theme of the issue.

The inception story of the nonprofit, e-NABLE, which is little more than a year old demonstrates what happens when strangers meet and collaborate, their collective skills creating something revolutionary. It all started when American Ivan Owen shared a video of a mechanical hand he had made for a Steampunk convention. Across the world, in South Africa, a carpenter named Richard Van As saw it as a solution to his plight. He had lost a few of his fingers in carpentry accident. He reached out to Ivan, asking for his help. Ivan agreed and together they went to work on creating a prosthetic.

They shared their work online and another stranger, a woman whose son, Liam, was born without fingers on one hand thought they might be able to help. They agreed and began creating, crafting a prosthetic for Liam with shop equipment. They quickly realized that even if they helped Liam, it wouldn’t assist him for long. He would grow out of their solution quickly. At the same time, a colleague of Ivan’s reminded him about 3D printing, a solution Ivan knew about but thought was financially unfeasible. However, in 2011, companies like Makerbot were making it accessible. So Ivan reached out, explaining what he and Richard were trying to make possible and asked if they could help. Makerbot gifted the two tinkerers with two machines. They set up one on each continent and their process rapidly accelerated. Each one could print off the new solution in question- hold it, utilize it and go on web chat to discuss its viability. No more did a physical product have to be chained by geography. But collaboration wasn’t the only solve 3D printing made possible. It enabled Ivan and Richard to create a viable solution for Liam. As he grew, they could simply scale the design and print out a new prosthetic for a reasonable price tag.

Richard and Ivan ended up sharing their work online. People began commenting that it was cool or stating that they had a 3D printer. A researcher from the United States, Jon Schull, saw the video and browsed the comments. He noticed what people were saying and thought up a way to move their words from commentary to action. He posted a link to a Google map and wrote that whoever had a 3D printer and wanted to print prosthetics should pin their location. Within 6 weeks, there were around 70 pins. That was the start of e-NABLE. It’s an origin story of strangers connecting through the internet and combining their know-how to change society. Today, e-NABLE has 4000 people who want to help. They have given out around 1000 hands to 700 people. Each prosthetic costs about $35 to make and every one of them has been given out for free.

In their short one year existence, e-NABLE has done much to connect strangers in real life who share common struggles or desires to help others. A family came to Ivan’s house to learn how to construct a prosthetic for their son, Dawson. The whole family sat around the Owens’ dining room table building the hand. A regular prosthetic would have simply been delivered and fitted, but for this one, the family took time to sit together, creating. Dawn, Dawson’s mother, later told the Owens’ in an email that the activity brought the family together and made her two boys closer. It also gave Dawson the confidence to show strangers his disabled hand and his new mechanical one. e-NABLE later connected Dawson’s family to two others, who all drove hours to meet each other and construct hands for their boys. Two of the mothers who had already made hands showed the third how to do it and the three boys who shared common experiences were able to meet and see that there was someone else just like them. Similar families, strangers to one another before e-NABLE connected them met because of the empowerment that e-NABLE gives to everyone who gets involved.

On the flip side, another set of strangers are connected- the makers. To give you a glimpse of how an online community makes working prosthetics, take a look at this example from last June. John Schull posted an idea with a video he had for “Differential Finger Contraction” on June 14. Within days, on June 17, 18 year old Nick Parker had a working prototype which he posted to the community. And by June 26, he had a finalized product with everything posted on Github for anyone to expand upon and use. Throughout the process both John and Nick got feedback that helped the whole community. By not needing copyright or to maneuver a formal organizational structure, e-NABLE can quickly prototype new models that solve the needs of different kids and empower those kids to live fuller lives, faster.

It’s important to note that this open source model runs throughout the organization. Parents are taught to build hands and learn how to repair their kids’ hands. In essence, the parents are just as empowered as their kids- the object that’s now in their lives isn’t a foreign piece of technology but something they have an understanding of. Additionally, kids are encouraged to give feedback on how models can be made better. Indeed, it’s because of the rich feedback Liam gave years ago to Ivan and Richard that e-NABLE is thriving today.

There’s one more set of strangers that e-NABLE connects and that’s regular people. From girl scouts to attendees at conferences, e-NABLE has had many different communities build hands. They don’t even need to have design experience (one participant was 7). At Convent of the Sacred Heart School in New York, two geometry classes and one Algebra II class were building hands for two six year old kids and one 16 year old. The six year olds had their thumbs intact and the 16 year old did not have their hands. The Algebra II class needed create one of those hands, the teachers were creating the second and the classes would also need to adapt the e-NABLE designed Raptor hand for kids who have their thumbs. Additionally, the classes were creating unique modifications like adding a lego piece to a hand for a recipient who loves lego and a clip on stylus for the 16 year old who loves his iPad. These classes are going beyond raising money for a cause and are actively working to engage with and solve the problem, helping others they may not know while applying the knowledge they learn in classes that usually seem esoteric in realistic ways.

e-NABLE might only be a little over a year old in its current existence, but they already have people waiting for them years down the road. One father emailed after coming back from his wife’s first ultrasound appointment. They found out their child would not have full left hand. They were shocked. Then he went on the internet and found e-NABLE. As he wrote to e-NABLE, “It is inspirational and I am heartened by what I have read concerning the technology, the caring nature of the people involved in design and production and the young children who have benefited. Knowing that this work is happening…it almost makes having a limb abnormality kind of cool. It has helped me to emotionally deal with what is ahead. For this – I thank you.” In a few years time, it seems like many more strangers around the work will be thanking e-NABLE.

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