Therapy student's invention opens doors

by Hilary Thomson
Staff writer

Doorways are often used to symbolize opportunity and mobility.

But for third-year Rehabilitation Sciences student Pamela Andrews they had become symbols of restriction and frustration following her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis last year.

Opening wide heavy doors was a problem for Andrews, who gets around with the help of an electric scooter.

"I couldn't find a tool to assist me and I tried adapting various existing equipment," says Andrews, who entered the Occupational Therapy program as a mature student. "Finally, I made a wish list of the qualities I needed and made my own device."

Andrews wanted the device to be esthetically pleasing and small enough to carry in her pocket. She also needed it to fit into a student's budget.

Her solution was a mechanism made from backpack strapping lined with the rubberized netting used to line kitchen shelves. Total production cost was $1.63.

Andrews loops one end of the strap around her upper arm and the other end around the door handle. The end connected to the door turns the knob and she is able to pull the door towards her.

Andrews calls the device the CAN Opener to capture its Canadian origin, function and frequent application in opening the door to the washroom.

The CAN opener won a first prize in Solutions '98, B.C.'s annual health technology contest. Andrews has patented her invention and is working with a consulting company to bring the product to market.

Other devices Andrews has invented include a rig to help her to continue her hobby of stunt kite flying and a special flotation device for her right arm that allows her to swim.

"It's probably the reason I'm in occupational therapy," says Andrews. "I like figuring things out -- it's just a part of me."

Andrews also recently won a first prize scholarship of $2,500 US in an international letter-writing competition that focused on barriers disabled persons must overcome.

Andrews says she views these barriers as hurdles instead of walls and is determined to reach her goal of graduating from the Occupational Therapy program by the year 2000.

The prize included an emergency evacuation device for persons with disabilities that Andrews has donated to UBC's Disabilities Resources Centre.

"We plan to use this donation as part of the university's emergency evacuation plan for persons with disabilities," says the centre's director Janet Mee.

The centre has assisted Andrews by adjusting a wheelchair ramp at the Woodward Biomedical Library, making modifications to a lab and providing her with student note-takers.