New Disability Horizons contributor, Dale Lehn, shares his story of how an unexpected disability encouraged him to create an ingenious product for disabled people: My4Hands.
Back in 2001 I was happily living with my family in the suburbs of Baltimore, Maryland with a successful sales management career in information technology. We were returning home from the beach when I sneezed and felt shocks go down my arms and legs. Not a normal response. As I had experienced a neck injury a few years earlier I called my orthopedic surgeon, who requested I have an MRI as soon as possible.
The following day I was diagnosed with a benign tumor inside my spinal cord in the region of the T5 vertebra. The surgery at Johns Hopkins University was successful and thankfully there was little damage to my spinal cord. Following rehab I only required a cane to get around.
However, my ‘friendly’ tumors chose to return in 2005. Upon getting the news, I knew my chances of walking again were minimal. Sure enough I was now restricted to a wheelchair, so following the surgery I spent three weeks in an intense physical therapy rehabilitation hospital learning how to live my life from a wheelchair.
Objects falling from my lap were a common occurrence and asking for help seemed constant. It didn’t take long to realize I needed four hands; two to propel me about and two to carry things. I also needed some sort of work surface that allowed me to work at a computer, cook, do dishes, to carry coffee – you name it. Before the tumors I had been the primary cook in my house for many years; I fancy myself a pretty darn good cook, if I say so myself. In my new reality this was no longer the case. It was difficult for me to find a work surface in our home that allowed me to continue to contribute to my family in this way. This was a hit to my self esteem. When anyone faces this type of change in the life one has, maintaining self esteem is vitally important.
So, after several months I set about creating some sort of device that would allow me to have a stable work surface to cook on, carry things around the house, keep my lap from getting hot when holding my laptop and give me independence outside of the home.
Through trial and error with a multitude of materials I settled upon a combination of two materials; a black polyethylene board as the base and black hold fast material adhered to each side. The hold fast material is a product invented by myself and offers a high coefficient of friction on both surfaces so it will hold fast to your lap and items set on top will stay in place. Referring back to my original need for such a product, I called this creation My4Hands.
The polyethylene core, in conjunction with the hold fast surface offers an insulation capability to prevent the transfer of heat through the board. Because of this My4Hands is ideal to hold a laptop computer without fear of burning your skin. As many people in wheelchairs do not have sensation on their legs, this is particularly important. You can also set a hot pot of water or skillet on My4Hands in order to be able to stir the contents and transport it easily to a sink or table. I always put a towel down between the hot item and the surface of My4Hands to keep from leaving a mark on the surface.
To make My4Hands a reality and something I could share with the wider world, I needed someone highly skilled with a multitude of tools. I was fortunate to have a friend come to my aid and for this I am forever thankful to Jim. We were able to work together to streamline the materials to make My4Hands and to create a process to manufacture the product. While he did this work, I was able to concentrate on marketing plans, legal issues (patents and trademarks), financial planning, and other tasks required to get a small business up and off the ground. I was able to recruit my wife’s cousin, a website developer, to come onboard to create my website.
Finally, my wife and I were able to create a name for the business that described what my life’s work is all about. You see, when I came home from the hospital my world had shrunk to our family room/kitchen. We live in a three story townhome and I was restricted to the main floor. We put a hospital bed in the family room with a commode off to the side of the bed. This was the limit of my life. My horizon was the kitchen to my left, the TV to my right and a beautiful deck straight ahead that I couldn’t wheel out onto because of the step to it. My life’s purpose had become a process of breaking through that horizon/reality to create a prosperous future, and so BreakthrU Horizon was born.
One of my mottos in life has always been “we have no control over what issues or obstacles are put in front of us, we only have control over how we go about dealing with them”. Sure enough, shortly after we launched My4Hands, in November of 2010, I was diagnosed with bladder cancer. This required my putting the business on hold and concentrating all my efforts on getting well. Following the removal of my bladder the end of March and chemotherapy from May through early to September, I have set out to re-launch My4Hands this year.
I don’t intend to end here. I have several other product ideas in development to address what others in wheelchairs face every day. The first target is to tackle a widely experienced irritant: people parking in the hash marks next to the blue disabled parking space. I got tired of being angry and cussing about this issue. Many people are uninformed or unaware of the problem they may be creating so I created a bumper sticker for my van’s sliding door that vibrantly informs people of my requirement for space to get into and out of my van. I am taking a positive approach to a negative issue and at least making a request for help.
I hope to continue to enhance my own life’s condition and as I do, create products and services that can benefit others. You can read and hear more of my story at www.breakthruhorizon.com. Thank you to Disability Horizons for this opportunity to share my story.
Take a look at my video on using My4Hands in the kitchen:
By Dale Lehn
For more ingenious products, check out our articles Useful gadgets and gizmos, and Starting your own business – Inspired by incapacity.