Disabled Children: Ingenious Chair Offers Freedom | Action Medical Research | Children's Charity

Disabled children: ingenious chair offers hope of new-found freedom

This research was completed on 30 November 2011

Published on 13 June 2012

Some disabled children have frequent muscle spasms that cause their whole body to stretch out rigidly. Standard chairs can be so uncomfortable the children have to sit on someone’s lap constantly. Researchers led by Professor Roger Orpwood, of the University of Bath, have developed an ingenious chair that moves with children through their spasms. The chair gives children the comfort and confidence they need to sit independently, bringing new-found freedom. The team is seeking partners to begin manufacture.

What's the problem and who does it affect?

‘Some of our most severely disabled children, with conditions such as dystonic cerebral palsy, suffer frequent, frightening and painful muscle spasms that cause their whole body – arms and legs included – to straighten out suddenly and become totally rigid,’ says Professor Orpwood. Children can suffer several of these spasms every hour.

‘Sitting in a standard chair is normally extremely uncomfortable – scary even – for these children and a chair’s rigidity can exacerbate spasms,’ adds Professor Orpwood. ‘Many of the children therefore spend much of their time sitting on someone’s lap, where they feel safer and more comfortable.’ Parents and carers can allow a spasm to run its course without constraining the children, letting the body extend and then gently returning the children to a sitting position as they relax.

‘For parents, the constancy of care required can be overwhelming,’ explains Professor Orpwood. ‘Some end up taking turns, day and night, in a desperate attempt to keep their child comfortable. What’s more, if children cannot sit independently, and so much effort is needed just to keep them comfortable, it is difficult for the children to take part in everyday activities, such as schoolwork or even just play.’

What did the project achieve?

‘We have evolved a new kind of design technique, which has enabled us to develop a new type of chair, which emulates the movement of a parent or carer when they have a child on their lap,’ explains Professor Orpwood. ‘These unique chairs move with children during spasms, keeping the children’s upper body almost upright and allowing their hips and knees to extend. The children are returned to their resting position as they relax.’

‘Extensive trials with two severely disabled children show the children seemed relaxed and comfortable in the new chairs, and able to interact with their environment,’ says Professor Orpwood. ‘They were able to adjust their posture without going into a spasm, and use body movements to help them communicate. They greatly enjoyed their new-found freedom of movement and, for the first time in their lives, were able to sit independently for long periods of time.’

The researchers plan further studies to gather more evidence on how the chairs affect children’s lives. They are also liaising with manufacturers with a view to making the chairs available within the next few years. ‘If these severely disabled children could break free from the restrictive bind of needing to sit on someone’s lap, they could get on with more things in life independently – at mealtimes, during play and at school,’ says Professor Orpwood.

What are the researchers' credentials?

Project LeaderProfessor Roger Orpwood BSc BEng PhD CSci
Project team
  • Ms Alison Wisbeach DipCOT
LocationBath Institute of Medical Engineering, University of Bath
Other locations
  • Occupational Therapy Department, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, London
DurationThree years
Grant awarded6 July 2007
Start date1 August 2008
End date30 November 2011
Grant amount£124,161.00
Grant codeAP1115
AcknowledgementsFunded by a generous grant from The Henry Smith Charity

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Professor Roger Orpwood has recently retired as head of a leading group of engineers with extensive experience of interpreting patients’ needs to design accessible and effective equipment. He has been collaborating with Alison Wisbeach, who led a group of occupational therapists at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital, which is world-renowned for pioneering work with children.

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