'Adaptoys' revolutionizes playtime for families living with paralysis

On October 16, 2010, 20-year-old Eric LeGrand lined up with his Rutgers University football teammates and knew they needed him to make a big play. It was the fourth quarter and the Scarlet Knights had just tied the game 17-17 when LeGrand chased down Army return man Malcom Brown and put his head down to tackle him.

“My teammate tripped him up before I got there and I thought I was going to hit him with my shoulder, but I hit him with the crown of my head in the back of his shoulder blade,” LeGrand, now 25, told FoxNews.com.

LeGrand lay motionless on the ground.

He was carted off the field on a backboard to the intensive care unit at Hackensack University Medical Center, where he would learn that the hit fractured his C3-C4 vertebrae, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. He was told he would never eat solid foods, never come off a ventilator and never walk again. After six weeks of recovery, he took his first steps in proving doctors wrong and began breathing on his own. On Thanksgiving of that same year he ate a full, solid meal. He’s regained movement in his shoulders, rebuilt muscles in his core and is working on finger twitches as he throws his energy into finding a cure.

While he’s enjoyed the freedoms he regained, his injury does prevent him from getting on the ground and crawling around with his two nephews, Xavier, 6, and Isaac, 4. He’s mostly relegated to chasing them around in his chair, or taking them for rides on his lap. Donna Lowich, a 65-year-old grandmother of three in New Jersey, faces a similar plight.

More than 30 years ago, Lowich was suffering from herniated discs in her neck and underwent a laminectomy to create space between the discs and spinal cord. The procedure is meant to relieve pressure on the spinal cord and nerves but the surgery left her a quadriplegic.

“The doctor said he never had a bad outcome and that I would be out of work for six weeks, and that I would be fine,” Lowich told FoxNews.com. “But when I woke up in the recovery room all I could do was shrug my shoulders.”

Lowich has undergone years of physical therapy and clinical trials to get to the point where she can now use a walker for short distances, but mostly relies on a wheelchair. She is also now able to move her arms but doesn’t have much dexterity in her fingers.. When it comes to her grandchildren, she can color and read with them, but is kept to on the sidelines for most mobile activities, like LeGrand.

“She loves to hit the baseball,” Lowich said of her eldest granddaughter, who is 6. “My husband will throw a whiffle ball for her and she likes to hit with the plastic bat. I could never do it, for those things, I’m just a spectator.”

But thanks to a new development from the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, the role of spectator can be a thing of the past for Lowich, LeGrand and other paralyzed individuals frustrated by the same limitations. In conjunction with 360i and Axios, the foundation has developed a new line of play products called Adaptoys, which are adapted versions of popular toys that allow people with physical disabilities to experience the joy of actively playing with their able-bodied family members.

The toys are equipped with voice activation, motion sensors and sip-and-puff assistive technology. For example, a remote control car is powered by a headset equipped with a straw that users can exhale into to make the car accelerate. Inhaling causes the car to reverse, while motion sensors on the headset steer the car left or right based on the user’s head movement. Another prototype is a pitching machine that is equipped with voice activation to throw a ball on the user’s command. The machine can release a pop-up, groundball or strike.

The Reeve Foundation approached LeGrand and Lowich about participating in a video about their paralysis. LeGrand, who has been involved with the foundation since shortly after his injury, and Lowich, who has worked with their paralysis resource center for more than 14 years, were eager to get involved. When they were surprised with the toys, the video took on a whole new purpose.

“The idea of playing with my nephews with the Adaptoys, I thought it was honestly incredible,” LeGrand said. “It was awesome. I had a lot of fun with them competing and showing them that Uncle E does have some competitive drive. It was great.”

“It opens doors for me because all of a sudden I could play with them. I could pitch with a baseball or whiffle ball with them,” he said. “It was funny to see how my little nephew got so mad telling me I cheated when I won. That’s the priceless stuff you can’t replicate.”

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For Lowich, it meant formulating a relationship with her grandchildren in a way that had previously been  closed off.

“I think everybody wants to have a relationship with their children or grandchildren,” she said. “As a grandmother I wanted to build a relationship and part of that is playing with them and not just watching. That’s fun in itself to a certain degree, but you want to be out there with them and establishing a rapport with them in the activity itself.”

Lowich’s son was just 4 when she was paralyzed, so she missed out on playing and interacting with him on that level as well. She is hopeful that the Adaptoys will help other families interact with their children in ways that she couldn’t.

“I would have loved to have had this when my son was little,” she said.

To make the toys widely available and develop other prototypes, the Reeve Foundation launched a crowdfunding campaign at Adaptoys.org. Money raised will support the research, development and costs for at least 100 adapted remote control cars which will be distributed to qualified recipients through a random lottery. The foundation is hopeful that the more funds raise, the more families will be reached.