Special Three-Year-Old Receives Trike Thanks to TEIS and TTU Engineering

Three-year-old Jacob King loves toys. And he loves to talk. He especially loves talking about his toys.

He's so enamored with them that his mom vowed not to put any presents under the tree this year until Christmas Eve because Jacob might want to sneak a peek.

So it wasn't surprising when Jacob wanted a tricycle. Inside the blue picket fence surrounding his playhouse and sandbox in the backyard, he had the perfect place to ride.

But the bikes on the store shelves didn't fit. Not tyke bikes, not Big Wheels. The seats were too high, or the pedals were too far away or handle bars were simply out of reach.

They were out of reach because Jacob was born with achondroplasia - from the Greek for "without cartilage" - a form of dwarfism distinguished by short limbs, a moderately enlarged head and average-size trunk. He's what most people call "a little person." ***

After he was diagnosed at six-weeks-old, Jacob's parents, Rachel and Tommy King, began gathering information about dwarfism and the new, unexpected world they'd entered. Jacob spent eight months in a back brace to reduce the curvature in his spine. Tubes were placed in his ears to decrease the number of ear infections. While learning to meet Jacob's needs in his first year, the Kings began a relationship with Tennessee Technological University.

For physical therapy, speech and motor skills, Jacob was able to take advantage of a state program, Tennessee's Early Intervention System, housed at Tennessee Tech. The program serves children from birth to age three who are at risk for slow development. TEIS' Filomena Walker put the Kings in touch with a physical therapist who showed them how to protect Jacob's head, how to exercise and strengthen his neck muscles and how to encourage independence. A speech therapist was also consulted and soon Jacob was out-talking everyone in the household.

There were still other physical barriers to overcome, everyday challenges like using the toilet or opening a door. The average adult height for a little person is about four feet, putting handles, switches and seats out of reach.

"We've done a few things, installed a low-profile toilet, lowered the door handles, but we know the world outside of the house won't be so accommodating," Rachel explained. "He has to learn to live in a big world." ***

Finding a tricycle to fit Jacob was something Rachel and Tommy did want. The few custom trikes on the market remain expensive, starting at about $700, and getting a good fit is rare. Adapting an ordinary bike is expensive and difficult - unless you find a group of engineers willing to custom design and build a trike free of charge.

Walker had such a group at her disposal at Tennessee Tech. Responding to her request, assistant mechanical engineering professor Stephen Canfield assigned his senior mechanical design students to build Jacob a trike. Walker had called on Canfield's classes before with success, asking for such items as a feeding device for a student unable to use his arms and toys to help special needs children learn motor skills.

"Jacob has the personality and attitude of a normal little guy," said Canfield. "When we first met, he was jealous and possessive of his Big Wheel. But he could only scoot it along because he couldn't reach the pedals. He'd never ridden a trike like a kid is supposed to."

Creativity had to be tempered with safety in mind. Any fall Jacob takes has the potential to seriously injure his head or spinal cord. The tricycle had to be a low-rider, close to the ground so he could get on and off safely.

Canfield's students, along with Jacob's dad, measured Jacob as he sat on an ordinary tricycle, then brainstormed for ideas. They sketched a trike that had a modified frame, smaller wheels, a different crank and a different seat. They used a computer to test a model for size and strength requirements.

Then they went to work, finding parts at the hardware store, using a seat, handle bars and steps from old bikes, and adjusting the pedals to Jacob's small legs. When he came for a test drive, not even Jacob was as happy as his mom.

"When you do something for yourself, it's no big deal," she said. "But when you do something for kids, something that lets them enjoy being a kid, it's really exciting." ***

Jacob's tricycle now sits parked in his playhouse, ready to be pounced on at any time. He likes to pedal forward, then roll backward, sporting a diligent look of accomplishment on his face.

When his mom insists he come inside because it's too cold, he pouts, then he cries. Just like any boy who loves his toys.