“When I became pregnant I was really happy, but also terrified,” Sara said. “I wondered how I would manage, and how Ben (her partner) would manage my care and the care of the baby. After Jacob was born I was very tired from breastfeeding, and it was pretty clear that I wouldn’t be doing most of the care.”
Sara has C6-7 quadriplegia and has wrist function but no use of her fingers. Although she didn’t place a priority on doing everything for Jacob herself, she wanted to do what she could and have the opportunity to interact with him in as many ways as possible.
When Jacob was first born, he slept in a hammock, which Ben hung from the hoist above his and Sara’s bed, so she could pat and rock Jacob without having to get up. Jacob grew out of this when he was around nine months old, and Sara and Ben then planned to use a cot they had been given.
But as with other wheelchair users, Sara didn’t have the reach or strength to operate the cot’s drop side, and couldn’t get near enough to the cot once the side was down because it got in the way of her chair. What TAD has done previously in this situation is to raise the cot by extending the legs, add some additional reinforcement and then convert the drop side into two gates which open outwards.
However, this wasn’t ideal in Sara’s case, because of her motorised chair. “You can’t move a motorised chair as quickly and easily as a manual one,” she said. “You would have to go backwards to open the swing gate, and by the time you got back into the gap Jacob could have fallen out.”
TAD volunteer Bill Phippen therefore developed a new solution: a sliding gate. He removed the entire drop side and made two new fixed sections which sit at either end, and two gates in the centre which slide open outside the fixed sections.
“Sara was concerned that if the gates extended beyond the end of the cot when they were open, it would take up too much space and it couldn’t be put in a corner,” Bill said. “That meant I couldn’t make the gates the entire width of the side. However, with some clever spacing of the pickets, she’s got more than half the side to work with.”
The gates slide on the type of runner normally used for kitchen drawers, generously supplied free of charge by Geoff and Marguerite Eagles from Cobbitty Grove Kitchens of Narellan. “The drawer runners were Sara’s idea, and it worked really well,” Bill said.
“The locking mechanism was also a challenge,” he said. “It had to be a gate that a child can’t unlock but is still easy for Sara with limited hand use.” He used a door latch which he positioned at the bottom of the gate where it is out of Jacob’s reach and sight line.
Bill also raised the cot so that Sara’s wheelchair, which requires a relatively high clearance of 81cm, could fit underneath it. He added castors to make it easy to move around the house, and reinforced the structure by adding struts between the legs on each side.
“There was a risk that because it was so high, the cot might be unstable when I put castors on it. Reinforcing the legs spreads the base out and makes it more stable,” he said.
Jacob is now 16 months old, and the cot has been a complete success. “The first time he got into it with me, he laughed his head off,” Sara said. “It was incredible, he really seemed to understand that this was a place that mum could reach him and we could have a different interaction. And it’s so good to be able to roll him and play with him on a flat surface.”
Sara is also full of praise for Bill’s efforts. “Bill was fantastic,” she said. “He came and looked at the cot and very quickly identified the problem and came up with a solution that has worked perfectly. The gates are very easy for me to open and lock, and the height of the cot allows me to get close to Jacob to play safely. He did a brilliant job.”
Bill says it is one of the most satisfying jobs he’s ever done for TAD. “It worked well, and it’s a very good example of the kind of service that we can provide – a solution for a unique situation that enables a person with a disability to do what they wouldn’t otherwise be able to,” he said.