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Photo of Tom Garside and four fourth-year students
Tom Garside and four fourth-year students. Photo by Marit Mitchell

Muscle and Metal

How a unique collaboration is making life better for a student with cerebral palsy

The idea of humans using robotics to augment their strength and endurance is a staple of science fiction. But such devices no longer exist only in the imagination.

Over the past two years, Tom Garside, a Master of Information student, has been collaborating with engineering students and professors of information and kinesiology to bring wearable, powered assistive technology out of the realm of science fiction, and into the everyday lives of people with compromised mobility.

Garside has cerebral palsy and typically gets around using a cane, manual wheelchair or motorized scooter. At the suggestion of colleagues in Information, he approached U of T engineering students in their final year of study about designing a mechanized leg brace.

For Garside, the task was also a way to improve his own project-management skills and to help others with mobility challenges. “Greater mobility means greater independence,” he says. “It allows disabled people to take better care of themselves and to contribute more to the community.”

Four engineering students began to work on the electrical controls and sensor systems the device would require. Meanwhile, Prof. Tyson Beach of the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education used 3-D motion-capture and force-measurement systems to analyze Garside’s gait. “He dealt with the human factor,” Garside says.

The engineering students finished a functioning prototype at a cost of only $1,000. This past spring, Garside got to strap the brace on to his right foot. The prototype works by measuring the pressure exerted by Garside’s foot. It detects what part of the stride cycle he is performing, and then helps him flex his leg to complete the appropriate movement. “I have been amazed by the quality of the brace produced,” he says.

This year, Garside is working with a new group of engineering students to improve the brace’s control system, look at different structural materials and then create a brace for his left leg.

Photo of mechanized leg brace
Photo by Marit Mitchell

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