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Wheels on the Ground

Emily Obert ‘11 has always seen herself as a problem solver. A paralyzing accident at the beginning of her senior year gave her an unexpected set of challenges to tackle.
December 20, 2011

It was a case of careless construction, an utter lack of engineering. Emily Obert ‘11 had been sitting on a cantilevered bench jutting out from a second-story balcony at a friend’s apartment in Cambridgeport when the angle brackets supporting the bench suddenly gave way.

And so, on that very sunny September day just before the start of her senior year, surrounded by friends and the smell of barbecue, Obert, then 21, found herself tumbling backward through the air. She landed feet first, her body crumpling under her.

As friends rushed to her side, Emily—the girl known for her Virginia charm and a grin too big for her face—had a very un-Emily-like moment. In a near-whisper, she said:

“I don’t want to be paralyzed. I don’t want to be paralyzed.”

She said it five, maybe six times, in a small but steady voice that only the people kneeling next to her could hear.

As they waited for the ambulance to arrive, friends stroked her sandy-brown hair and murmured comforting words. It’s going to be all right, you’re going to be okay.

Yes, she finally decided. She would be.

She could not feel her legs.

Relearning everyday motions

In addition to breaking three ribs on her right side, Obert had shattered the vertebrae just underneath her shoulder blades. Her spinal cord had been severed, and the paralysis was permanent, her doctor said. Below her chest, she has no sensation.

The surgeons attached two 10-centimeter titanium bars to her fractured spine using screws and hooks. The bars stabilized her back and would cause the vertebrae to fuse together to provide stiffer support.

A couple of days after the surgery, the Burton Conner housemasters, Professor Merritt Roe Smith and Bronwyn Mellquist, visited Obert at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

“We walked in the room, and her mother had just been brushing her hair, and so her hair was sort of fanned out over the pillow,” Mellquist says. “She looked so angelic.”

“At some point I kind of just looked at her, and the enormity of it hit me,” she continues. “And all that happened was my voice cracked … and she looked up at me, and she says, ‘It’s okay, I can still move my arms!’” It was classic Obert humor—goofy, with just a whiff of sarcasm.

A week after her fall, Obert moved to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, a brick building near TD Garden where she would relearn the motions of daily life. At first, it took her 45 minutes to put on socks. Since her injury left her without the use of her abdominal muscles, even rolling onto her side requires strategizing. She must draw her arms to one side, then wrench them across her body to create enough momentum to flop her torso over.

At her daily physical therapy sessions, where she practiced these skills, Obert would often bring along a bucket to vomit in because her medications left her nauseated. But she would never ask to quit, her physical therapist says. She would throw up, put the smile back on her face, and move on.

“I mean, sure, there are days you’re crying because you’re so tired and you’re spending all your time just getting up and getting dressed and eating,” Obert says. “You just take one step at a time. I can never stay upset for a long time anyway. You get upset, cry about it, and get over it. You have stuff to do.”

A Problem Solver

Immediately after the accident, Obert’s mother, Cathy Poff, wondered if the injury would dim the spirits of her kind, generous, determined daughter who loved design, art, and engineering. Would Emily be the same Emily?

Poff remembered when her daughter, at about eight years old, had suddenly piped up from the back seat of the car: “You know how in the world there are two kinds of people—problem getters and problem solvers?”

Poff had never thought about it that way, but yes, she supposed that was right.

“I was sent here to be a problem solver,” Emily had replied.

ToolingObert works on a prototype bike control for a blind cyclist. Small motors in the handlebar vibrate to tell the rider how far to turn. An earlier prototype had the motors sewn into gloves.

After about seven weeks at Spaulding, Obert moved into an apartment in East Cambridge with her mother. Life began to return to a rhythm. And she went back into problem-solving mode. She revisited the goals she had set before her accident and concluded that she could still accomplish them all.

While recuperating that fall, she took the GRE and put together applications for graduate school in mechanical engineering. Though she missed the fall semester, Obert needed just a couple more classes to finish her bachelor’s degree. So she was determined to return and graduate on time that spring.

She was equally adamant that she would move back in with her campus living group, the close-knit Burton Third Bombers. MIT objected that her old dorm was not wheelchair accessible, and that she certainly shouldn’t live on the third floor, but Obert petitioned the housing office and persuaded administrators to make an exception. To her, it was crucial to reunite with her beloved Bombers, her on-campus family.

As she came back to friends and a cranked-up social life for her final semester, she discovered the annoyance of trying to wheel around parties while holding snacks or a drink. It was the problem of the cheese plate. “I could put it on my lap,” she says, “but my lap’s uneven, and then all of a sudden I’m sitting on cheese, and it’s like, ‘No! I don’t want to sit on cheese!’ But I have no idea I’m sitting on cheese, right?”

Obert imagined a small, stylish tray—emphasis on “stylish”—that would clip to the side of her chair. The few options on the market were too large and clumsy. Obert wanted to carry hors d’oeuvres, not textbooks. She turned the idea into her undergraduate mechanical-engineering thesis: a fold-out table that attaches to the side of a wheelchair to hold food and a wineglass at parties or networking events. She plans to show the design to medical-device manufacturers in hopes of putting it into production.

The prototype, a swoopy wing of black plastic, demonstrates what Obert likes in a design. It’s simple, it’s elegant, and it addresses something most might overlook: how a wheelchair user socializes.

At the end of April, the Burton Third Bombers held their largest annual party, Dance ‘Til You Drop. Sweat condensed on the windows as Obert got into her usual groove, popping wheelies, spinning back and forth, and throwing her hands up in the air.

“Even though I’m paralyzed really far above my waist, I still move around more than half the MIT students,” she says. “They just move their hips—left, right, left, right—and bob their heads, and it’s just like, ‘No … come on!’”

She loved getting people to let loose, she says. “I guess they were like, ‘Well, damn, if the girl in the wheelchair is dancing, I have to dance.’”

the power of good design

Obert did graduate on time. She also earned a spot as an MIT master’s candidate in mechanical engineering—and a fellowship. Now taking classes and contemplating her thesis project, she is interested in using robotics to make daily life easier for people with or without disabilities. This passion had been sparked long before the injury, during a philosophy class her sophomore year.

The professor had questioned what it meant to be disabled, using the example of dyslexia. Back when most people didn’t read, dyslexia was not a handicap, Obert says. The discussion made her realize that it’s not the user—it’s the environment.

“If you don’t need someone to read, their dyslexia doesn’t matter,” she says. “If you don’t need someone to walk up stairs, then it doesn’t matter that they’re in a wheelchair … good design is going to make an environment in which people can succeed.”

After the injury, her faith in good design grew—as did as her frustration with bad design. “I guess when I became paralyzed and I started living in the world in a wheelchair, I realized that it’s not me that’s the problem here,” she says. “The problem is the way the world’s built.”

“I understand it costs money to change things, but it’s worth it so more people can participate in society,” she adds. “Making people feel included and not making people feel frustrated and upset is worth a lot more than some people think.”

This past fall, Obert took a class on assistive technologies. Coincidentally, in the first week the students took turns riding in wheelchairs around campus to better understand the challenges a paraplegic faces. Obert thought the exercise was superficial. “I understand the idea,” she says, “but at the same time it felt a little bit trivializing. People were like, ‘Oh, it’s so hard to open the door’ … and [that’s] such a small, tiny piece of what you actually have to deal with every day if you’re in a wheelchair.” Better, she says, to talk to people with a disability, to shadow them for a day and ask them about what they need.

For their final project in the class, Obert and her lab partner consulted with a blind man who wanted to ride a bike by himself on an outdoor track. On an October afternoon in her shared office, Obert demonstrates an early prototype: a set of gloves with vibrating motors over the knuckles. The size of Altoid mints, the motors signal how the rider should steer. A vibrating right pinky means a hard right; a vibrating left index finger means a slight left. The motors (which have moved to the handlebar in a later iteration of the prototype) are meant to connect to a camera that reads the lane lines on the track surface.

“We actually have a sound interface, too—you hear a beep and you drive toward the beep,” Obert says. But their client didn’t like that. “Because he’s blind, he likes not having to use his ears for too many things, because they tell him all about his environment,” she says. Having to put in earphones could be distracting—and would also diminish his pleasure in being outdoors.

Joy and comfort are important considerations to Obert, who believes that the user experience is paramount. “That’s the only kind of design I like,” she says. “If you’re not designing it for the user, then who are you designing it for, right? It doesn’t make sense.”

Often, designers misjudge or ignore the social angle. A new kind of wheelchair powered by a handlebar that the user rows back and forth is “really cool,” Obert says, but she hesitates. “I think a big reason those kinds of novel ideas don’t take off is because I think people are very sensitive to the way that they present themselves in the community,” she says slowly. “Using a wheelchair is already weird, and if you’re doing something weird with the wheelchair, then you’re, like … even weirder.”

But imagine, she says, a wheelchair that looks “totally normal”—like a regular chair—until it starts to move. “It might be kind of strange because somebody is sitting in a chair outside,” she says. “but at the same time … that could be kind of cool.”

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