Birkley Logan, 13 years old and living in Golden, wants to run around the playground, go to camp with her peers, and sled with her siblings, and she wants to do it freely. However, because Birkley’s special needs require very specific equipment not made in the general recreation industry, Birkley’s mom, Tamra Logan, had to work extra hard to make it happen.
Fortunately, Logan’s ability to see a need and materially meet that need had already been tested, even before Birkley’s birth. She’d created the Monkey Mat, a playmat perfect for laying babies down on the wood floors in Denver-area homes. The product is sold in local boutiques and nationwide.
“I loved creating something that wasn’t out there and being able to test the market,” says Logan, who has a graphic design and fine arts degree, and hands itching to create.
Just as the Monkey Mat was gaining traction, Birkley was born. Her diagnoses of deafness and cerebral palsy, caused by a viral infection during pregnancy, made celebrating new life a bit more complex. Logan shuttled Birkley to lots of Children’s Hospital Colorado appointments and had a hard time balancing everything.
“We saw every specialist in the book at Children’s Hospital,” she says. “Going from blood tests to EKG tests to urine tests and every kind of test imaginable, I couldn’t keep up with friends and family and keep everyone up to speed with what was going on.”
She started a blog called Special Living Today, where she shared updates and eventually her mission to fill the gaps in products that suited Birkley’s needs. After Birkley had been on her back for a few years, Logan wanted her to be upright and mobile like other kids her age. She enlisted the help of a neighbor/woodworker to build a custom walker.
“I want her to be able to play like all my other kids could play,” says Logan. “I wanted life to be more fun for us, and she deserves to live just the same as everybody else.”
Adaptive R&D begins
Once she grew out of the walker at age four, Birkley spent a lot of time shuffling around on her knees. Hard, splintery wood on the deck and rough asphalt in the cul de sac wouldn’t work for Birkley when it came to outdoor play. Plus, different terrains at the park are not easily navigable for bare feet, much less bare knees.
“I want her to run like all the other kids—if it’s running on her knees, so be it,” says Logan. “She wants to be independent and by herself sometimes also.”
The search began for just the right pad material, but soon turned into a pile of “nope, not quite.” The Nike arm sleeve didn’t stay on, and sweatbands were too short. Volleyball knee pads didn’t come in sizes for four-to-six-year olds and would get wrecked right away; they weren’t abrasion-proof.
Logan turned to her own mashup of biking arm bands, the ones with an anti-slip silicone strip at the top, and layers of denim sewn to the kneecap area for durability. Finally, something that acted more like a shoe for the knee. She called the prototype Skneeks.
This model worked well enough for six years, but after tossing used Skneeks in the trash each month and watching Birkley grow into more mobility demands, Logan feared her daughter would end up getting bloody, scabbed up knees. Logan refocused her research and spent two more years of R&D to develop the current design: the sleeve is made of spandex and has a hole in the back to prevent too much sweat. The knee material, which was “impossible to find,” says Logan, is like leather but with a semi-rubber finish to it, akin to a black shoe sole material.
During research and development, Logan thought: There has to be other people dealing with this. Turns out, folks the world over have been in similar, very targeted searches for adaptive pads that would allow their kids to play and be protected. After a successful Kickstarter campaign two summers ago, and launching her online shop GoLiiv, she started selling six to 10 Skneeks per month to people who were finding out by word of mouth.
Supplying the demand
Logan put the venture on hold at the start of the pandemic—manufacturing and shipping most things had become nightmarish and delayed—but then she started getting an uptick of emails. About four times a week, people would ask when Skneeks would be on sale again.
We’re desperate, when are you going to sell these again? Wrote one family whose child had been in an accident and couldn’t fully walk again.
This is a game changer. My daughter has worn these every day in the summer. Please bring these back, another customer wrote.
Most of the emails came with a story, says Logan, which helped her create an authentic connection with her customers. She’s recently sent Skeeks to Kuwait, Australia, Ireland, England, and Germany.
Skneeks are expensive to make and Logan has had to sell for a slightly higher price, but she is hoping to come up with ways to offset that through donations or opportunities to gift pairs to folks in need.
“For me it’s more for the love of it because I understand and I get it, and it’s my way of giving back,” says Logan. “I need a lot more resources, but it’s really awesome to see people loving these.”
Similarly, seeing someone love the experience of using adaptive recreation equipment is what pulled Joel Bach into the field.
Bach, associate professor in mechanical engineering at Colorado School of Mines, was on sabbatical from his orthopedic research and mechanics job and looking to learn something new. He attended an adaptive sports workshop and was tasked with keeping an athlete’s feet on the pedals of a bike. The solution they came up with was rudimentary, involving a wrench and some duct tape, but the result was freedom, both for the rider and Bach.
“I just kind of fell in love with the opportunity to take the biomechanics and engineering that I love doing and apply it to helping people in a way that was a little more direct than I was able to do in orthopedics,” says Bach.
This discovery was seven years ago. Now, Bach is director of Human Centered Design Studio at Mines, where he leads senior students in developing adaptive equipment to solve mobility challenges for veterans, first responders, and families like Logan’s.
While Logan was in R&D mode for Skneeks, her friend connected her with Bach. Once the two started working together, they noticed shared passion and commitment to their cause.
“A lot of times people want that product, but it’s hard to find the people who will push and push and push to actually create for that need,” says Logan, who considers Bach a kindred creative spirit in this way.
Bach agrees: “Every time Tamra and I get together and talk, we end up coming up with a bunch more ideas and usually have to narrow it down to one or two to tackle at a time.”
To start, they’ve developed a sled that holds Birkley in an upright position. Through observing Birkley’s movement and capabilities, and asking Logan loads of questions about her experience with Birkley, Bach and his students came back with a prototype and kept tweaking until they got a good product they hoped to bring to the public. Bach says after uncomplicating some fabrication, they plan to open source the design with a list of materials and instructions so anyone can reproduce it.
More adaptive equipment innovations
The Human Centered lab program at Mines is not unique in terms of working in adaptive recreation equipment. However, according to Bach, there’s no other program that’s doing things with students to the scope they have, and with an operational system that’s more like a professional design firm than a college course.
Next up is a set of eating utensils. Through video chats, a group of Mines students have connected with the Logans, asked questions, and then sent prototypes of forks and spoons. This project is trickier, considering the intricate mobility issues in picking up food, keeping the food on the utensil, and fitting everything into the mouth, not to mention durability and cleanability of the materials.
“Coming from the field of orthopedics and just engineering in general, a lot of solutions are general in that you treat everybody the same,” says Bach. “With disability, you really can’t do that. There can be folks who have a similar type of injury or disease or condition—there’s still variability there. So we have to address the individual, and that’s one of the things I enjoy teaching my students.”
Although it can be more intensive and complex, Bach says he’s energized working in this field. He’s looking to establish a public benefit corporation to take some of the designs that have broader applicability and make a profit, in order to then reinvest in creating more complicated equipment.
“That’s one of the challenges in the adaptive space, especially sports and recreation, is that it takes a lot of R&D to develop something, and the markets are small,” says Bach. “So in most cases, companies just don’t tackle it. Or, if they do, things are ridiculously expensive.”
That’s why Logan’s story may not be as unique as it may seem. A lot of products in the adaptive space, according to Bach, have similar origins in that a friend or family member created something to help their loved one. If the public corporation is successful, inventors like Logan could have a manufacturing partner and make their needed products in more quantity, or at least at a lower cost.
In the meantime, Logan encourages parents who are in the same long and hard search for the right tools just to live an everyday, typical life.
“Never give up,” she says. “When you do find it, it’s life changing. This [disability] community is amazing… there are always people that want to help or want to reach out. Communicate and be open to ideas.”