Catch the Future,
helping a 6-year-old boy play baseball for the first time
Some weeks ago, Jessica Lee and I (Master students from IIT Institute of Design) were fortunate to join other students and alumni from Northwestern University to participate in an event called the TOM Makeathon. TOM stands for Tikkun Olam Makers, an organization that was founded in 2014 by the Reut Group, a strategy group based in Tel Aviv, Israel.
They focus on challenges in society and try to introduce new solutions for those problems, as said by TOM architect of inspiration, Rebecca Fuhrman. During this 72-hour event, students with different backgrounds come together and work in teams.
Each team is assigned to a person who has a disability, who then presents an accessibility challenge to the team. The challenges varied widely. For example, a woman who has weak vision wanted to navigate the streets independently while another wanted to enable a baby with cerebral palsy to navigate the home.
It was meaningful challenge for me because each of these users presented the most significant challenge that they had in their daily lives. As these challenges required lots of personalization, it was common that these users had not been able to find solutions to their needs elsewhere and were coming to TOM for help.
Our team was working with Zayne, a six-year-old boy who is a Cubs fan and loves playing baseball with his pals. Zayne is unique. He has ulnar agenesis. His arm movement is limited as he has two fingers on his right hand and three fingers on his left hand. And as he does not have much palm surface area, he is unable to hold the average baseball glove.
While you may think that this situation limits him, I have to say that you are wrong. He is extremely active, alive and full of energy. He is a happy boy who can throw a ball further than many other kids in his age. He would surprise you with his power and talents.
From the beginning, we divided into two teams to tackle this challenge from two different perspectives. One team had more engineering knowledge and focused on giving him more finger digits. We hoped that this could help him in everyday life by enabling him to pick things up more easily. The other team started to work on the baseball challenge, to see how we can help him play baseball with his friends.
The finger digit team had a more general goal — helping not just Zayne but anybody with potentially the same physical limitations to grab and hold objects better. The team made dozens of 3D-printed prototypes and tested all of them with him. In their first try, they designed an extended thumb for him.
Although it was a seemingly small extension, the improvement was significant as it helped him to hold stuff much more easily. Afterwards, the team tried to make an extra finger for him. This was a big challenge as he doesn’t have much palm area and his wrist is not very powerful. In the end, they attached the extra finger to his index finger. This essentially made his index finger thicker than before, so he had a larger surface area to grab objects with.
My team focused on the “Playing Baseball” challenge to help Zayne play baseball with his friends. First, we took him outside of the workspace and we all started to play with him to get to know one another. His skills were remarkable as he had his own methods of throwing and catching the ball. I asked, “What if we could use his existing power of throwing the ball and his method of catching the ball, instead of force-fitting a solution on him to play baseball like everyone else?” This was the question we kept asking each other. I was so excited about that, because by designing something specifically for him, it could be more effective and might improve his self-confidence as well.
After brainstorming, we started to create our first prototype. His elbows are fixed, so his arms make a V-shape. Because of that, he has strong shoulders and he is extremely good at using them. We thought maybe we could design a glove that would be fixed between his arms.
We created a prototype by using velcro straps and a glove. As you can see in the picture, a friend of mine, Katerina Cheronis, wore it and she played with it. We learned that she could grab the ball easily, but we were worried about Zayne’s safety as it was so close to his face. We decided to put this concern aside for the moment and to let him just test it.
The team and I nervously watched him from a far, hiding every now and then when Zayne looked over. After we left, he finally decided to try it and it was an incredible moment for the team. Although his cousin had not put the prototype on Zayne properly, Zayne could still control it. He was playing happily and beautifully. Though the glove did not completely stay fixed in its position, it was not a big deal. We were fortunate that the event cameraman was able to record some close-up videos of him trying out the glove. It was from these videos that we realized he had hacked our concept and used it in his way. The strap was not used as intended- Zayne had decided to use the strap as a way open and close the glove, while helping himself hold up the glove with his other arm.
It was awesome. The test was a great break-through for us. The prototype proved that our concept had a chance. We felt more confident and decided to explore more and make iterations to improve the idea.
We did a second round of brainstorming. This time, mentors joined our brainstorming session and we decided to test a different solution. Zayne is right-handed, so we thought that if we gave him a bigger left-handed glove, he could put his hand completely into the thumb of that glove. Therefore, he would be able to hold the glove with his right hand and close it with his left hand, which is how he played with the first prototype. This concept did not need the strap anymore. Also, if we were successful, he could simply buy a regular glove from any sports shop and just simply modify the use of it.
We went to the sports shop for a third time to buy a left-handed glove. Then, we came back to the shop and added support to it (see the picture below). But when Zayne tested this prototype, we realized that the enforcement was completely unnecessary. We immediately removed it, and let him continue to play. He quickly went out with his new glove to show off his talent. He was playing amazingly; he could catch the ball in the air and throw it with his left hand. Although I believed that he played better with the previous concept, he insisted that he liked this new one. I suppose he was happy that his glove looked like any other gloves on the market.
On the final day, while Jessica and I were looking to find a Cubs cap and a bigger glove for Zayne, Katerina started to make our final concept. She removed the net of one glove and added it to another one. The result was a left-handed glove that had a bigger surface area to help catch a ball. We tested it with him again, and it greatly improved his performance. He was rotating and adjusting the glove based on the angel of each incoming shot; it was unbelievable to see how talented he is.
He played for more than an hour, while his family and our team were happily crying from the sidelines. When we first entered this challenge, we were told that he had never been able to wear a baseball glove and catch a ball in the air. So what we were seeing was his first time playing, without any practice. Can you believe that? If I didn’t tell you, you probably wouldn’t have noticed he was doing anything different. He plays just like any other kid on the baseball field. And the best thing was that his mother could make his future gloves for him without much assistance.
I thank the TOM organization, NWU, LUNAR and all the sponsors for providing me with this opportunity. It was a great experience and I learned a lot. Working in a multidisciplinary team with other smart and talented students was a remarkable time. I have done projects for children before, but not like this challenge. We not only had to design something to help Zayne play baseball, but that also helped him be like other boys his age. Observing him, putting ourselves in his situation and coming up with personalized solutions specifically for him was a great learning experience. TOM was a great break for me, a design strategist, because it reminded me of why I became a designer. In these 72 hours, I had the chance to solve a challenge for someone and see the smile on his face and his family and his friends. It’s a smile that I would definitely want to see again at the next TOM event.