The University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Occupational Therapy's OT 673 and OT 674 classes consider Assistive Technology. When many people think of AT, they picture amazing advances like prosthetic limbs, optical character recognition (OCR) software or speech generating devices.

So when co-instructors Deek Cunningham, MS, OTR/L, and Gavin Jenkins, Ph.D., OTR/L, both assistant professors in the OT department, asked the class to build chairs – using only cardboard, paper, flour and water – as assistive devices. You can imagine what went through the students’ heads.

“I never thought that in OT graduate school I’d be building a chair using paper mache,” said a laughing Merry Grace Harper, an Entry-Level Occupational Therapy student.

OT chairs webUAB OT students work on collapsible chairsBut these are no ordinary chairs. And they are not for an ordinary cause.

“The objective is to make functional chairs for children with disabilities ages three to six using low level technology that can be found around the house and they must be collapsible so they can be put in a suitcase and delivered to a foster home in Africa,” said Suzie Barnes, an Entry-Level Occupational Therapy student.

This is the second consecutive year the OT students have built chairs for an orphanage in Uganda called the Home of Hope. The idea came from former OT students Jenny Taylor and Leslie Sims. The two UAB School of Health Professions alumni, along with Leslie’s husband Ryan, founded Our Hope International (OHI), an organization dedicated to helping disabled children in Africa, shortly after a mission trip to Uganda in 2011. It was on that trip that Taylor decided she was going to make a difference in the children’s lives.

Jenny child webJenny Taylor with child from Home of Hope“The Lord has been so gracious to me and I have more than I will ever need,” said Taylor, who works as an OT at UAB Spain Rehab. “I feel it is a privilege and an obligation to come alongside these children at the Home of Hope to help and serve them as best I can.”

In addition to making the chairs functional, the students want to make the chairs fun so the children will want to utilize them. Each of the six teams is working on a design. Team WCF+1 are fittingly going for the butterfly effect.

“The appealing aspect of ours will also be the functional aspect because the butterfly wings will basically add stabilization to the base of the seat and the antennas of the butterfly are set in a location where the kids are supposed to place their feet,” said Barnes, member of Team WCF+1.

“These chairs will be fun for the children to use and will allow them to interact with others in a supported, upright position so they can do functional things most take for granted like eating and playing,” said Cunningham. “I’m proud of the dedication, effort and creativity shown by these students.”

OT chairs web iiUAB OT students work with papier mache“It hasn’t been impossible but it has been difficult,” said Harper. “But even so I definitely believe it’s been worth it. I know it will be rewarding to see the final product once we have it decorated, knowing that we are helping children in another country who are a lot less fortunate than we are.”

The goal of this project is to challenge the problem-solving and creative skills of the OT students. Even here in the United States, limited resources mean that OT practitioners often have to think on their feet and use materials around them to best serve their clients. This project serves this purpose, not only is this simply a classroom exercise but allows an opportunity to reach out and support Our Hope International.

To see more pictures of this project visit the UAB School of Health Professions Flickr page at and click on “OT’s chairs for Uganda.”

Editor’s Note: Our Hope International (OHI) bought land for the Home of Hope three years ago and since that time they worked to construct a new building. The building is now complete and the Home of Hope family moved into the new building August 2013. You can read more about their work on their website