Three Stanford University engineering students, working with Abilities United, have come up with an artist’s tool that allows people with limited arm and hand control to make art on their own without an assistant guiding their hand.

The prototype, which the students call Tetris Table, is an adjustable easel that sits on a desk and has a mechanical arm, or “helping hand,” that holds a pen, marker or paint brush in place and keeps it upright. The artist pushes a wide foam grip to move the pen across the page.

Since 2000, Abilities United has provided artists of all abilities and backgrounds access to the Bay Area art community, by providing opportunities to create, exhibit and sell their art.

People in wheelchairs or those with limited range of mobility can find standard art tools such as paintbrushes, paint trays, tables and easels, difficult to use. Typically, volunteers will use what’s known as the “hand over hand” technique, which involves placing their hand over the artist’s hand to keep the tool steady while the artist paints or draws.

But the hand-over-hand technique makes participants feel less like they are creating the art; especially nonverbal participants, who find it hard to express their artistic ideas to the volunteer. Moreover, volunteers are limited in how many artists they can assist at one time.

Abilities United challenged the students to come up with a solution that was inexpensive, easy to use, and fostered artists’ independence.

Ehson Kolbehdari, Darrel Deo, and Francisco Lopez, students in Professor David Jaffe’s Perspectives in Assistive Technology course, spent 10 weeks observing participants and volunteers at Abilities United and designing the prototype tool. The course explores the design, development, and use of assistive technology that benefits people with disabilities and older adults.

The final prototype was made from parts of a desk lamp, nuts and bolts, and other pieces easily found in hardware stores. It took two hours to assemble.

The students watched with pride as participants, using the new tool, were able to make art totally independently for the first time.

“They were able to make art by themselves, completely alone. We just stood behind them and watched them create by themselves, where initially they needed someone moving their hand around,” said Deo, a Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering.

Wendy Kuehnl, Director of Marketing as well as the Art Program of Abilities United states, “We are so fortunate to have these talented students dedicate their work to developing this accessible art making tool.  For the individuals who don’t have the mobility to create art without the assistance of another person, this tool is essential to their ability to express themselves creatively, emotionally, and independently. This is an incredible accomplishment and something we have been looking for but unable to find elsewhere.  We can’t thank Ehson, Darrel, and Francisco enough for their dedication and the great results of this project.”

While the course is over, Kolbehdari, Deo, and Lopez, aren’t stopping here. They plan to enter the prototype in a design competition; put together a do-it-yourself booklet so other nonprofits and people around the world can replicate it; and they’re even looking into ways to have the product mass-produced.

“Because of the interest, we feel obligated, like it’s our duty to do something next with this,” Deo said.