Today, hundreds of Tetra volunteers are organized into more than 45 chapters in cities and towns throughout North America. Tetra’s greatest strength is that everything is conducted within the community. It is volunteerism operating at the local level, to meet people’s unique needs.
The amazing thing about the organization is that the needs of two groups are met: people with disabilities receive an “enabling” device, while skilled volunteers get an opportunity to use their creativity and ingenuity to make a difference for someone else. It's a win/win situation; Tetra is simply the catalyst.
The key to it is ingenuity. Adaptations are applied to everyday needs – household, communication, mobility, personal care, vocational and recreational aids – things that can make very real differences in the lives of people with disabilities. For example, it takes an aluminum bracket, a piece of wood, a flexible gooseneck from an old microphone stand and a little ingenuity from a Tetra volunteer to enable a person with quadriplegia to enjoy a morning cup of coffee. Another team of Tetra volunteers modified a sled so a youngster with cerebral palsy could go outside with her schoolmates at lunch-hour. All Tetra volunteers are highly skilled and very compassionate people.
More information about how you can volunteer with Tetra Society.
Please fill the Completed Project Form so we can add your work to the assistive device database here.
Tetra volunteers at planning meeting.
Ali Taha just feels that he is giving something back to society.
Just like any other Tetra volunteer, he does it for the challenge of coming up with a design solution to somebody’s accessibility needs – and the satisfaction of seeing the difference his work can make to an individual’s life.
Ali Taha, who emigrated from Iraq in 2000, is constantly aware of how fortunate he is to be where he is now. He has built an engineering company through his own skill and hard work, but things might not have turned out this way without the support he received when he first arrived in Canada.
As he puts it: “This is something I can give back to the community that accepted me … few hours of my time.”
Ali contributed greatly to a project that vies with Sam Sullivan’s Olympic/Paralympic wheelchair flag-holder for the title of highest profile Tetra project: an elevating platform to enable Ontario’s Lieutenant-Governor David Onley to access his official airplane.
The project needed to lift Onley without touching the aircraft steps or fuselage, and then fold down to travel in the narrow gangway.
But he has done many other memorable projects.
One was a sip ‘n’ puff TV remote control to enable a client with multiple sclerosis, who had no movement below his neck, to change channels. “Television was his only joy in life – this meant a lot to him.”
Another was to devise a crib for a six-year-old boy. “My suggestion was to buy a regular wooden single bed and build a railing for the sides.”
Ali created a motorized elevating kitchen stool/chair that was a work of art.
“It was for an architect,” he recalled. “He had a fancy condo and wanted the stool to match. The client designed the stool, drawing how he wanted it to look. I’m proud that I achieved his standard.”
It is also functional, lifting from 20 inches to 32 inches in 12 seconds, allowing the client, who has limited mobility, to access his countertops.
“I made the project a year ago,” said Ali. “I saw the client by chance last week, and he said he didn’t know how he would manage without it. That was a good feeling.”
Another on-going project of Taha’s is an off-road vehicle – essentially a motorized platform that can take a wheelchair on a variety of surfaces, reaching speeds up to 30 kmp/h. He had spent around 250 hours on the project (at the time of this writing) and estimated it would take another 200 hours to see it to completion.
This level of technical expertise and dedication are “typical Taha,” according to Peel Region Chapter coordinator Matthew Fleet.
“He’s our most prolific volunteer right now,” said Fleet. “His background is mechanical engineering, but he makes himself available to do any Tetra project. He has vision and the commitment to turn it into reality.”
Ali Taha is president of GAD Technology Inc, of Mississauga, which designs and fabricates assemblies for industry – typically, automated assembly machinery for factories – so he knows about matching design innovation with the practicalities of delivering a completed device.
“Working for Tetra gives me a good feeling. I’m proud of myself. I feel happy when I see someone benefiting from one of our projects.”
He’s worked on highly technical and high profile projects, but Mike McNally’s great pride is the design of a crib door for a severely disabled young boy.
His satisfaction comes from “taking it another step” – thinking laterally to come up with the neatest solution to a challenge. Natural ingenuity beats over-complicated engineering every time, he says.
Not that Mike McNally has anything against the complicated route. He personally devoted an estimated 150 hours (although he politely declined to put a figure on it) last Christmas, as part of a team of elite engineers working on an innovative solution to a rather high profile access problem.
Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources asked Tetra to devise a solution to enable people with significant disabilities, including Lieutenant-Governor David Onley, to access official government airplanes. The team – which also included Craig Brewer, Ali Taha and Sam Barnes, all of Peel chapter, and Tom Richardson, of Hamilton – devised a folding ramp to take Onley up into the ministry’s nine-seat Hawker Beechcraft 350 aircraft.
The group “absolutely achieved their objective” and the completed project is now in the hands of the ministry, should Onley decide to take a trip to some remote part of the province.
Closer to McNally’s heart is a young client, who had outgrown his adaptive crib. Although one end swung open, it was getting difficult to lift him in. The solution was a side opening – that would be easy for caregivers to open yet perfectly safe for the young user.
It would have been ‘easy’ to install a hydraulic system – but harder to reach a ‘simple’ solution. Thinking laterally, Mike used a thick, but flexible, plastic panel that is held tight by a roller.
“The side of the crib was 80 mm clear PVC, the type they use in supermarkets to cover the freezers, with an aluminum bar at the top, and a roller at the bottom,” Mike explains. “When you give the roller a twist it tightens the side. The boy could not push the plastic out.”
His current project is for a client looking for a way to hold a cane on his wheelchair.
“He had been thinking of using an adaptation to a mop holder – what you would use to hang a mop on the wall,” says Mike. “But I got to thinking about magnets.
“There’s an outfit called Magswitch that will hold 90 pounds, but release completely with a twist of a knob. I put a metal bracket on the side of his wheelchair and mounted the Magswitch on the side of the cane.
“When you turn that switch on you cannot pull that cane off.”
Another memorable project of his was a tennis ball launcher to enable a nationally ranked wheelchair tennis player to practice his serve. Mike’s device was based on a caulking gun with a spring added.
Mike McNally received Gizmo Awards from the Greater Toronto Area Tetra groups in 2007 and 2008 for the ball launcher and airplane ramp, respectively.
Hamilton chapter coordinator Sylvia Baliko praised Mike’s “commitment to Tetra,” adding that he has “completed five projects over the past year, along with being the main force behind the platform lift for David Onley, having worked on the design, manufacturing and attended all the on-site meetings.
“I would say he has well over 150 hours invested in this project alone,” Sylvia says. Mike McNally certainly represents all that is good about Tetra volunteers, she adds.
Dick Sircom, who has been volunteering with Tetra’s Halifax Chapter for the past decade, says there is no predictable Tetra project.
You never really know what hidden complications lie within the most seemingly simple request, says the retired electrical engineer. Dick Sircom has spent many an hour patiently taking apart an electronic toy to add remote tether operated switches or to make repairs.
“If my engineering professor could see me now, he’d have kittens,” says Dick, laughing. “He’d say look what this man is doing in his retirement years.
“But a lot of a child’s happiness revolves around these things. I’d say to my old Prof, ‘Stop and think, this means a lot to some little kid that has a disability.’ It means a lot.”
Dick Sircom is a practical man, who likes to keep busy, and, more to the point, needs to be challenged. He is also motivated by the notion that things he does can be of benefit to other people.
Common to many Tetra volunteers, he is very aware of his own good health and that many are not so fortunate. He speaks in terms of wanting to return something to society.
Dick has arthritis in his hands and has modified the door handles in his house (joking that he is his own Tetra customer now), but you won’t catch him complaining. After all, he designs projects for quadriplegics and children with multiple disabilities and can’t help but admire their spirit.
His preferred projects involve machining – which tends to lead towards creating attachments for wheelchairs – and working in plastics, in his own modest shop. He recently completed an adapted fishing rod holder for a man who’d suffered a stroke, combining plastic and machined metal parts. To Dick Sircom this was a simple, quick project.
“Others have taken many hours,” he says. “Some disproportionately long, because of a lot of fiddling around or going back and forth.
“I try to do it as quickly as possible because people are waiting, and it bothers my conscience when I cannot devote enough time to it.”
A recent project involved fixing the drive gears of a mechanical dancing chicken. He was amazed at the build quality of the Mattel dancing chicken – “It was assembled with screws, and there was excellent workmanship on the fabric. . . the printed circuit board was very well made” – although there was a mechanical weakness in the design.
“The kid lived for this little toy. Just to know he now had it back and running was most rewarding.”
Another memorable challenge was to adapt a table for a wheelchair – taking a commercially available unit and improving it so that the client could adjust its height, replacing locking screws with a locking lever – a bigger task than it sounds, involving a complete re-build.
Dick Sircom speaks highly of his fellow Halifax volunteers, citing the ingenuity of Bill Rudolph’s bicycle designs as a source of inspiration. His only regret is that more people haven’t heard of Tetra, particularly practically minded people, who want to contribute something to society.
A relatively new Tetra chapter is being steered in the right direction by an enthusiastic coordinator.
Ross Morrow (right) formed the Guelph chapter in May 2008, having shown an instinctive grasp of the traditional elements that lie behind the most successful chapters: hard work, networking, enthusiasm … and a willingness to pick up a phone and introduce the Tetra concept.
Having worked in the field of manufacturing for 35 years, Ross is experienced at designing and building devices of all kinds, and is confident in his ability to generate solutions to clients’ requests. For now, however, it’s the behind-the-scenes work that is taking over his time.
Ross wanted to find a volunteer organization where he could donate his professional skills to help others, and found out about the Tetra Society of North America through an internet search. Tetra’s philosophy appealed to him, and descriptions he read of assistive devices that dedicated Tetra volunteers had created further appealed to him.
“This is something I had missed since my retirement,” Ross recalls thinking when he looked at Tetra’s website. He was confident that he would benefit from the opportunity to contribute his time and energy to assist individuals with mobility and dexterity impairments, and learn new skills and experience fulfillment by solving the technical challenges that Tetra projects entail.
An injury to his hip a few years ago had bothered Morrow and he can still remember the feeling of helplessness. “I remember struggling to get on my feet one morning to get something just out of reach, or simply opening the blinds,” he said. It felt uncomfortable having to rely on his family, even on some of the easiest tasks.
He understands the significance of simple assistive devices – to enable individuals with disabilities to overcome challenges they encounter, both physically and psychologically. “That’s why I decided to take on the task of establishing a new Tetra chapter in Guelph,” he said.
Aware that the key to Tetra’s success comes through establishing strong relationships with local community groups and healthcare organizations, Ross is staging presentations and meetings with a variety of service providers to promote Tetra and the benefits of customized assistive devices.
Along the way, he has approached potential funders and begun to attract clients. He has been talking to the University of Guelph engineering department, seeking potential volunteers and possible additional technical support.
Now the word is getting round that Ross Morrow and his volunteers are ready to construct non-commercial, unique custom assistive devices for citizens in the Guelph area in order to enhance their quality of life.