Slowly she scans the sea of hands stretched high in the air. One by one, finger by finger, Blue River Elementary (BRE) teacher Debi Boyd evaluates the students eager to answer her latest question, when suddenly she catches a glimpse of light out of the corner of her eye. She follows the light bulb down the shaft to its source of origin. There sits Ricky Cook-Alt in his wheelchair smiling brightly and pushing a button to illuminate the light on his chair, “raising his hand” just like his peers.
Ricky was born with arthrogryposis, a rare physical condition that caused the muscles in his arms and legs to grow too short while in utero. While Ricky has full cognitive ability—and
a happy-go-lucky spirit that can cheer up any room—his condition makes even the simplest physical functions a challenge.
“Ricky’s range of motion is limited,” said Ricky Cook-Alt Sr., Ricky’s dad. “He can’t bend his arms fully and same with his legs.”
Because of his limited range of motion, Ricky often struggles to raise his hand high enough to signal Boyd during class, feeling frustrated when he misses the opportunity to participate like his peers. Sensing Ricky’s frustration, Boyd approached BRE resource teacher, Lyn Morton, to see if there was a way to help Ricky more easily engage in class.
“Lyn Morton had the amazing idea of using the engineering students at the Center for Advanced Professional Studies
(CAPS) to make a light to fi t on Ricky’s chair,” Boyd said. “She was instrumental in calling, speaking to and arranging the CAPS students to come over, interview Ricky and get his insights as to what he wanted the ‘chair light’ to look like.”
After multiple brainstorming sessions, prototyping, and trial and error, the CAPS students decided to construct a permanent light fi xture for Ricky’s school-assigned wheelchair that would be easy for him to operate and noticeable to his teacher.
“We went in and we fi gured out how high the other children’s hands are because, as a teacher, that’s the average height you’re looking at,” said Jon Meyer, CAPS engineering student.
“We experimented with different combinations of lenses and lights and we fi nally fi gured out the right combination that was bright enough to be seen but not so bright that it was distracting to the kids.”
While there were many technical elements involved with designing the attachment, the CAPS students quickly realized they were building far more than just a lighted chair; they were building an opportunity for a young boy to embrace his independence.
For Meyer, being able to change a student’s life while also
pursuing his academic interest in engineering, developing his leadership and teamwork skills, and learning the value of helping others was a humbling experience.
“It just makes you feel great, just so thankful that you can
use your resources and your knowledge to help somebody in
need,” Meyer said. “Being able to connect a physical design with somebody that’s really in need, it gives you such an amazing
For Ricky’s parents, the support and resources provided by
Blue Valley’s CAPS program and the BRE staff have helped
their son to shine in the classroom where he now feels like an independent, contributing member of the group
“The light was an awesome idea,” Cook-Alt Sr. said. “It’s all
about learning and being a part of something, being a part of his classmates. It’s just another resource that [the district has provided], going above and beyond what they have to do and making Ricky feel a part of the team.”
With the new light attached to Ricky’s chair, Boyd can already notice a marked difference with his classroom experience, saying Ricky is more eager to answer questions and feels like he is a part of the class now that he can “raise his hand” too.
“He’s happy,” Cook-Alt, Sr. said. “And that’s our biggest thing. As long as he’s happy, able to learn, and continues to meet or exceed expectations in school where there are no limitations because of his physical condition, then we stand behind the project 100 percent.”