Cal Poly engineering students carefully listened recently as 23-year-old Cameron Clapp talked about his prosthetic arm and legs.
“It’s difficult for me to walk up stairs because I have to kick out my (prosthetic) legs to move them and it’s hard to pick them up,” Clapp said. “Also, I think it probably looks easy the way I move my (prosthetic) arm, but it definitely could work a little more smoothly.”
Clapp, a Cuesta College student, also shared his ideas for new technology as the Cal Poly students ponder projects for a new program at the university to help the disabled.
Through his newly founded nonprofit organization, Quality of Life Plus, Cal Poly alumnus Jon Monett donated $500,000 this year for a new lab and to support engineering projects that improve the mobility of disabled public servants, including Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, firefighters and police officers.
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The upbeat Clapp, who likes to pump up his audience with shouts and hollers, urged Cal Poly students to design better artificial legs and arms.
Clapp lost both legs and his right arm nine years ago when he was hit by a train.
Since then, he has participated in athletic events for the physically disabled, conducted talks in front of young people about his story and acted in an episode of “My Name is Earl.”
During the meeting, Clapp told about 50 sophomores — who are just starting to think about senior projects — about his love for surfing, hiking, swimming and running, which are all activities he continues to undertake despite his disability. But he noted challenges as well, such as riding a bike.
Clapp told students he doesn’t really remember the accident, which happened around 3 a.m. Sept. 15, 2001, when he was 15.
He was drowsy after drinking alcohol earlier in the evening and didn’t see the train coming that struck him as he crossed the tracks near his home at the time in Grover Beach. He previously told The Tribune he sat down on the tracks and nodded off.
Clapp woke up later in a hospital bed, without his legs and right arm.
Clapp demonstrated how prosthetics with microprocessors allow him to walk and run, as well as drive a car and navigate down stairs.
He has no natural body parts below his thighs and lost his dominant right arm; he now has to perform skills such as writing with his left.
The university’s partnership with Quality of Life Plus is so new that Cal Poly officials have yet to fill up its laboratory with equipment that will help develop new projects.
The partnership encourages students to create advancements with prosthetics, wheelchairs and other devices to help improve mobility for the disabled, as well as promote their participation in fun physical activities.
“What’s happening in Iraq and Afghanistan is that the mortality rate of our troops is lower, but the rate of those losing limbs has increased,” said Monett, who donated the money for the lab. “We hope this will help take care of the wounded.”
Already, five Cal Poly students have scheduled a meeting with Monett to discuss an innovative wheelchair design.
Mechanical engineering students Brian Robinson, Dean Swenson, Mark Azzarello and Jason Della Rosa and business major Kim Todd are designing an off-road chair that will help Robinson’s sister, Shelley Robinson, a quadriplegic, navigate outdoor trails.
Shelley Robinson recently tried to use her traditional wheelchair on a trail in Yosemite and had problems maneuvering, which sparked the idea for the senior project, Robinson said.
Wheelchairs similar to the one the students are seeking to create already exist, but they are heavy, and the team hopes to design a lighter version with a unique suspension.
The students will be working with Shelley Robinson, who lives in the Bay Area, on how to best create their product. They hope to turn their work into a business after their prototype and patents are developed.
Monett said his organization will provide some seed money for the research and development and take some percentage of profits down the road to put back into the university’s program to help the disabled.
Scott Monett — Jon’s son — helps lead the organization and said that the freedom to experiment with new ideas at Cal Poly without the strain of meeting revenue goals — which often determine for-profit business projects — will lead to great ideas.
Cal Poly mechanical engineering professor Tom Mase also said that the partnership is a great opportunity for students.
“Jon Monett is really encouraging the multidisciplinary aspect of the projects, and students will benefit by working with each other — as they will have to do when they begin their careers,” Mase said.