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Paul Diefenbach, PhD

Paul Diefenbach, PhD and Margaret O'Neil, PT, PhD, MPH

Creative collaborators turn "child's play" into ground-breaking therapy

Margaret O'Neil has seen more of Cerebral Palsy's impact on children and families than most people will ever encounter.

CP is the most common physical disability affecting children today. It stems from brain injury that creates a range of life-long impairments to movement, balance and coordination.

O'Neil's inclination is to turn "No way!" into "Why not?"

As associate professor in the Department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Sciences in Drexel's College of Nursing and Health Professions, O'Neil knows how often children and teens with CP encounter limitations. Team sports, playground games, almost any type of group activity or play involves physical barriers that ultimately become psychological, too.

"The activity limitations of moderate to severe CP make it very difficult for many individuals to access community resources to promote health, fitness and functional mobility," explains O'Neil, referring to playgrounds, recreation centers, amusement parks and other places that most families take for granted.

Paul Diefenbach, PhD and Margaret O'Neil.

Ironically, movement is essential to help people with CP stay strong and maximize their physical potential. But imagine trying to motivate the average teen to do traditional P.T. exercises daily.

As a clinical researcher, O'Neil's inclination is to turn "No way!" into "Why not?"

That's why she turned to her Drexel colleague, Paul Diefenbach, founder of the nationally renowned Game Design Program in the Digital Media department at the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, and director of Drexel's RePlay research lab.

O'Neil had observed that active video games require many of the movements she prescribes: reaching high, bending low, balancing on one leg, sitting up tall or twisting, even in a wheelchair. She wanted to know if Paul could modify a game so that she could control the intensity and duration of exercise, as well as prescribe the type of movement required to score points.

Not only did Diefenbach respond with an enthusiastic yes, he and his students set out to address the larger problem of keeping people active throughout their lives. “We wanted to create an ever-growing game platform for all ages — games with fun graphics, music, and movement challenges that could be monitored and precisely modulated.”

Drexel funding creates lift-off for enAbleGames

A start-up grant from Drexel's Center for Expressive and Creative Interaction Technologies, ExCITe, allowed Diefenbach and O'Neil to create "Kollect," which challenges players to catch and collect objects flying towards them through space.

The response from children and parents was ecstatic. With a major grant from the Drexel Coulter Translational Research Partnership Program, a new business was launched.

Today, enAbleGames offers a growing list of games for children with movement disorders, and research is underway for reach people with Down Syndrome, Autism, Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis and stroke.

While other approaches to active video games for rehabilitation have focused on clinic-based uses, the programs from enAbleGames put exercise in the hands of people who don’t have ready access to regular clinic sessions. Systems can be installed in rec centers, rehabilitation centers, even homes, and the therapist can follow their clients' progress and adjust the program remotely, via the company's web portal.

In one of the most exciting recent breakthroughs, players can now use their own Android or iPhone inside an inexpensive plastic headset to play in a virtual-reality format. Like the laptop-based offerings, the V-R games respond to the users' body movements. Sessions are recorded and stored securely online, where a therapist can access them remotely and provide guidance.

Diefenbach and O'Neil share the determination that enAbleGames will continue to promote individual health and, ultimately, contribute to a more inclusive society.

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