Care takes on added meaning here in Singapore Polytechnic (SP). The word is also an acronym for a centre dedicated to helping people in need through innovations. Meet SP CARE, the Singapore Polytechnic Centre for Applications in Rehabilitation Engineering.
Engineering New Ways to Care for Others
SP CARE was founded in 1993 and celebrated its 20th Anniversary in 2013
SP CARE was set up in 1993 to provide engineering facilities and services to help the elderly and disabled in Singapore.
The centre also provides SP students with opportunities to apply what they have learnt to real-life projects and, at the same time, educate them on how to be caring and concerned citizens. Mr Ronny Tham, Deputy Director at the School of Mechanical & Aeronautical Engineering, explains that the innovative projects and inventions SP CARE develops are often part of students’ Final Year Projects, and by adding an element of community service to the tasks, the experience is made more meaningful for the students.
“It is also a sustainable form of community service that SP can deliver to positively impact the community at large,” says Ronny, who has been deeply involved in SP CARE since it started and who served as SP CARE Manager from 2004 to 2009.
For more than two decades, SP CARE has enhanced its beneficiaries’ quality of life immensely. The centre has developed hundreds of solutions for over 30 organisations and individuals, ranging from communication devices such as a picture-to-speech device for the mentally and speech-impaired to communicate with others, to assistive equipment – for example, customised motorised wheelchairs and portable physiotherapy equipment.
No two projects are alike, Ronny emphasises.
"We look at and develop solutions according to a person’s needs. Every project has its own uniqueness; it depends on the disability and needs of the client,” he says.
When asked to single out a particular meaningful memory of SP CARE, Ronny is stumped, and for good reason – there are simply too many rich memories in the roster of the centre’s inventions!
Instead, he decides to share two recollections: one of a royal nature, and another of an artistic endeavour.
A Memory That Reigns
Mr Ronny Tham (left foreground) demonstrating a motorized wheelchair designed by SP CARE to Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand (right foreground)
It turns out that royalty itself has been inspired by the good work done by SP CARE!
“We have hosted Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand a total of three times since SP CARE started out. In 1994, 2004 and 2006,” Ronny reveals.
“For a princess to come down to see the work we are doing is really an honour for us. From her very first visit in 1994, she even invited SP CARE to Thailand to hold two exhibitions there.
“Since then, our ties with Thailand have grown. The princess has even dedicated a research group from the National Electronics and Computer Technology Center (NECTEC) of Thailand, which is similar to Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), to work together with us. We collaborate regularly and share best practices and ideas.”
This Abled Artist
The Princess would also be familiar with Ronny’s other favourite SP CARE memory.
It is the story of Gilbert Tan, an accomplished author, poet, composer and professional artist. He once demonstrated his painting prowess to the Princess when she visited SP CARE. Brush held delicately, he created an intricate work of art right before her eyes.
The twist is, Gilbert painted his piece using only his mouth.
Thai Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn (middle background) taking a picture of Mr Gilbert Tan as he demonstrates his amazing talent in mouth painting, with the help of the motorised easel developed by SP CARE.
You see, this prolific talent is paraplegic – paralysed from the chest down due to an accident in 1983. Overcoming great odds, the exuberant and boisterous Gilbert not only taught himself how to paint with his mouth in 1988; he has advanced his repertoire of art styles from using simple poster paints when he first started, to picking up Chinese brush painting, charcoal and pencil sketching, and water colours, acrylics and oil painting. These paintings are a source of income that has helped him enhance his quality of life.
For Gilbert, the painting process is laborious as he only has a limited range of canvas he can reach, which poses a challenge when it comes to larger works of art.
“My main difficulty was painting big canvasses. I needed my wife to help me rearrange the canvas so I could start on a new section. But in painting, you need a mood and a flow, so it was sometimes very disruptive having to wait for everything to be arranged as by the time I got back to the actual continuation of the painting, there was no flow,” says Gilbert.
Easel Does It
All that is in the past. This abled artist can now shift his canvas with ease. The secret lies in an invention that SP CARE developed for Gilbert. It is so indispensible to him and his craft that he affectionately calls it the “artist’s buddy”.
“It is a motorised easel, especially designed to raise or lower in height, and to change the angle of the table. I just press a button and within half a second, it gets to the section I want and I am able to paint again,” says Gilbert.
Gilbert’s motorised easel is customised to his specific needs, and it is not the only one there is.
Ronny shares that SP CARE has in fact developed several customised easels to meet the needs of Singapore’s mouth artists.
“Our intention was to build easels for all of the disabled mouth artists in Singapore, so we asked around to find out who these people were and we then contacted them to volunteer our services,” Ronny explains.
Ronny is extremely glad that the centre has had a hand in helping these artists realise fulfilling careers.
Through innovations, SP CARE has enabled each of them to capture their every inspiration on canvas.