Written by Joy Manson
and published in the
New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal
April 30th, 2005 issue, page 8

Reprinted by The Tetra Society (www.tetrasociety.org) with permission from the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal

Helping the disabled get out to play
Volunteers create specialized bikes, trikes and pool cues

On a dark and chilly Monday evening in January, a small group gathers around a table in a meeting room in one of Fredericton's engineering firms. The group on this night includes a retired RCMP officer, a machinist, a university researcher, several engineers, a real estate agent, two occupational therapists, and a writer.

The group discusses an electric car for disabled children. The voices rise and fall as the discussion becomes animated. Laughter rings in the room.

What brings this disparate group of people together? They all lead busy lives yet they have left the comfort of their families on this cold night to come to a meeting to brainstorm ideas to help disabled people.

Everyone in the group is a volunteer with the Tetra Society, a national non-profit organization based in British Columbia that helps disabled people by making or adapting assistive devices that are not available commercially.

Fredericton has had a Tetra chapter since July 2000. Christine Plourde, P. Eng, is the chapter coordinator.
Photo by Jean-Frederic Lalonde
(Special to the Telegraph-Journal)
Seven-year-old Jessica waits impatiently for her father Glenn to buckle her into the bike trailer customized for her by Tetra volunteers. Jessica doesn't speak, but the look on her face says it all.
"I liked the idea of being able to use some of my engineering skills and contacts to help others," she says.

Melanie Lalonde, P. Eng, is one-half of a husband and wife team. Her husband, Jean-Frederic Lalonde, P. Eng, is also a volunteer and together they've completed several projects for Tetra.

"Engineering is not like other careers where you get to work with and have an immediate impact on the lives of others," explains Ms. Lalonde. "I got involved with Tetra because I had been thinking for quite some time that I wanted to volunteer somewhere, so I could use my professional skills to help others."

Tetra volunteers have varied backgrounds, although many are engineers or health professionals. Some are handy or have skills gained from a lifetime of working as machinists and carpenters. Some had helped disabled friends for years before learning about Tetra.

The process begins when someone with a disability needs an assistive aid that can't be purchased because it doesn't exist - or has some equipment that needs modification.

Tetra will help people of any age with any sort of physical disability, either temporary or permanent. Once a request for assistance is received, it is discussed at a brainstorming session. In most cases, a volunteer will then agree to take the project on.

There are some limitations to what Tetra can do to help. Tetra does not make lifts, hoists, floatation or medical devices. They will not make anything that is already available commercially.

"We're not here to compete with stores and services," explains Plourde. "We're trying to fill a gap by providing things that don't exist."

Among those who have been helped is a young Fredericton family. Several years ago, Tetra modified a bike trailer so that Jessica, who has cerebral palsy, could accompany her family on bike outings.

"Because Jessica doesn't walk, it's a challenge to find activities that the whole family can do together. Bike riding is something we can all do, and enables her to feel the sensation of movement," explains her mom Lori.

Because Jessica is small for her age, her parents were able to extend the time they could put her in an infant bike seat. But when Jessica outgrew her bike seat, her parents found the options at stores weren't suitable. Frustrated, discouraged and missing their family bike rides, they contacted Tetra.

The volunteers determined that modifying a bike trailer was the most cost-effective option. They purchased a trailer and a child's car booster seat for additional support and welded them together. They installed a five-point safety harness to keep Jessica upright and removed the canopy, because she doesn't like to feel closed in.

Jean-Frederic Lalonde, who worked on the project with wife Melanie, remembers the day of Jessica's first ride in her new trailer.

"Jessica doesn't speak, but you could certainly see the excitement in her smile and face. I had the chance to take her on her inaugural ride, up and down our street, and she absolutely loved it! She was truly beaming!"

Tetra does not charge for its services. Occasionally, there may be a charge for materials. As a non-profit organization, Tetra often convinces stores and services to donate the item needed, or to reduce the cost. While the group is focused on the greater Fredericton area, they are willing to help anyone who can come to the city to meet with them.

The devices created by Tetra volunteers tend to be a unique blend of engineering, health care, and resourcefulness.

"Tetra provides an outlet for the hidden inventor in me," jokes Tom Sisk, P. Eng. Sisk combined a yard sale find with spare parts from home and some small purchases from a local store to build a spring-loaded pool cue for patients at the Stan Cassidy Centre for Rehabilitation.

While an engineer may be needed to figure out how something could work, the input of someone in the health-care field, such as an occupational therapist, is vital to ensure the overall usefulness of the device as well as the safety of the user. The solutions are sometimes simple and can be made using materials found around the house or in local stores. All that is needed is the know-how to put it all together and the time to do it.

Jean-Frederic Lalonde is amazed by the impact these devices can have on someone's life.

"My greatest enjoyment since joining Tetra has been witnessing the considerable improvements that we can make to people's daily lives, even with the simplest of modified devices."

Tetra makes and adapts aids for school, home, the workplace, and recreation. While funding agencies and health care plans provide financial support for items that are deemed medically necessary, there is often no funding for recreational items. Filling in this gap is where Tetra shines.

"As an [occupational therapist], I find that what is necessary for a client to enjoy life and engage in work, family, or leisure activities goes so far beyond what the funding agencies term 'medically necessary,' " explains Pam McCaskill, an occupational therapist at the Stan Cassidy Centre and a Tetra volunteer.

Lise Bleau, also an occupational therapist at Stan Cassidy, agrees. "As an [occupational therapist] I promote the balance between work, rest and play, but our current system does not support funding for the 'play' part," she says.

The devices are as varied as the people who need them. The volunteers have customized several sleds. They built a wooden "step" with a slope to it for a woman with multiple sclerosis who needed it to stretch her calves and ankles.

They have also modified an adult tricycle for a teen. Her family obtained a used trike for her but because she has limited use of the right side of her body, she was having difficulty using it. Volunteers Brian Gillcash and Felix Boudreau replaced the bike seat with an office chair to give her greater back support, moved the braking system to the left side - her strongest side - and replaced the handlebars with new ones which were bent. After a few more minor modifications, a paint job and a good polishing, the trike was returned to the family ready to roll.

While these modifications and devices may seem minor to many, to someone who lives with a disability, being able to have fun along with family and friends is a huge thing, and goes a long way toward improving quality of life.

To contact the Tetra Society, visit their website at www.tetrasociety.org, or call the Fredericton Chapter coordinator, Christine Plourde, at 506-462-7662 .