Former Patient Aims to Help People Stop Wishing and Start Doing
Josh Smith invents assistive device to help people with quadriplegia.
According to his friends and family, Josh Smith has never been one to shy away from a challenge. Now, not even a year after a spinal cord injury that transformed his life, the 24-year-old with a mechanical engineering degree from Virginia Tech has invented a device that gives people with quadriplegia the ability to type, use touchscreens and press buttons – tasks that can be extremely difficult and slow for people with limited or no use of their fingers.
Known as the Sixth Digit, the device is an adjustable pinky finger ring with a conductive silicone tip attached to a small stylus. Because it’s worn and not held, it’s much easier to carry and becomes like just another finger. It’s even possible for the wearer to push a manual wheelchair without removing the Sixth Digit because of the device’s small and unobtrusive design.
Before his accident, Josh had always been athletic, earning the nickname “Superman” for his ability to out-leap his opponents in Ultimate Frisbee. He invented the Sixth Digit out of necessity after fracturing his C-5 vertebrae and sustaining a spinal cord injury (SCI) in a diving accident in August 2014 in Virginia Beach. The spinal cord injury rendered him quadriplegic with limited use of his arms and hands. After being taken initially to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, he was transferred to Shepherd Center for rehabilitation.
“I understood I broke my neck, but I thought I’d be better by Christmas,” Josh says. “I had no idea of the severity of it.”
His Shepherd Center physician Anna Elmers, M.D., says, “He’s had a lot of medical setbacks, but he took that adversity and responded with a positive attitude.”
In addition to the medical challenges, Josh was frustrated with learning how to do formerly simple things, like pushing buttons and typing, with his new, limited mobility. During therapy, he was given a stylus that he would bend around his wrists and intertwine between his fingers.
“It was awesome because it allowed me to use my phone, but I always had to ask someone to put it on or take it off. The only use it served was as a stylus,” he says. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to hold a stylus,’ so I wanted to figure out something I could use.”
One day, when his mother was at CVS pharmacy, he called her.
“He asked me to get two Ring Pops,” says his mom, Caroline Smith. “I asked him why and he wouldn’t tell me. When I got back, he ate one and then asked someone for an eraser and added that to the pop to create the technology.”
“All the feedback I got from everyone that I showed it to in the spinal cord community, they couldn’t believe anyone else hadn’t thought of that,” Josh says.
He did some research to see if anyone else had developed this technology. Josh then came up with the idea for the ring to be adjustable and found a manufacturer. He launched a Kickstarter campaign in March 2015 and has surpassed his $8,000 goal.
“His is a challenging injury because he doesn’t have hand function,” Dr. Elmers says. “Think of how you’d live your day-to-day life without the ability to push buttons. That’s why Sixth Digit is so amazing.”
Caroline says her son has always been very creative, trying to figure out how to do things. As a kid, this trait would sometimes get him in trouble, but now he’s working it to his advantage.
“He thinks it’s nothing special, but he doesn’t realize not everybody thinks like he does,” she says.
“I’ve always been someone to make things,” Josh says. “I would MacGyver things with duct tape and once made a hovercraft out of plywood that used leaf blowers and a beach chair, but I hadn’t invented anything before this. ”
Thinking this way helps him keep his mind occupied. “It doesn’t make dealing with it any easier, but now he realizes he can continue to use his mind to help other people,” Caroline says.
Josh credits Dr. Elmers and his therapists at Shepherd Center with helping to keep him motivated.
“They are awesome,” Josh says. “They are very supportive, like a small community. Everyone is like family there, and you can tell that everyone there loves what they do. I wouldn’t be where I am if I didn’t go to Shepherd.”
As for his goals, he said he’s not sure where his life is headed in the next five years, but he has some ideas.
“I’d like to be able to help people in my situation, whether that is making inventions that will help them or being some sort of counselor or therapist, because that helped me tremendously,” he says.
At his company, Handizap, he’s already hard at work on his next invention, another multi-functional device that will help people pick up things and open bottle caps, among other things.
His mom likes to tell the story of his graduation speech from inpatient boot camp therapy, where he challenged his fellow patients to “stop wishing and start doing.” Josh has set the example for that motto.
NOTE: Sixth Digit should be available in mid-June 2015, Josh says. In the meantime, contact Josh's company, Handizap, via Facebook at www.facebook.com/Handizap with your contact information, and he will let you know when you can order the product via a website he is building.
Written by David Terraso
Photos Courtesy of Josh Smith
Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.