Ezra Reynolds’s job title may be assistive technology design specialist, but he does much more than just create at Signal Centers, a Chattanooga nonprofit organization focused on fostering lifelong independence for children, adults and families.
Using his UTC degrees in computer science and electrical engineering, Reynolds is a problem solver, often coming up with ingenious solutions to help people of all ages with disabilities live happier, more independent lives. He has helped children and adults by designing devices and software that help them overcome their physical and mental disabilities.
Reynolds’s office functions more like a workshop. It’s not uncommon to hear sounds of various saws and a 3D printer when walking in the door. His desk is surrounded by bins of wrenches, glue and drill bits.
“I got into this very accidentally,” said Reynolds, who began volunteering at the Signal Centers in 2007. “UTC has a program where first-year engineering students work on design projects for people with disabilities. It was a fun class and a good learning experience.
“So much of the work for most classes is the same. The teacher says, ‘Turn to Chapter Seven and do the odd-number problems, 12 through 35.’ You’re learning this stuff, but it doesn’t actually make the world a better place,” he added.
Finding simple solutions to complicated problems for people with disabilities is Reynolds’ mission. From a one-handed clipboard for a child who had a stroke with to a talking joystick mouse for a man with paralysis, he’s completed dozens of projects over the years.
“My favorite thing about working here is the flexibility and creativity. It’s never the same thing two weeks in a row. Every week we’re seeing new people, new problems,” he said.
Picking up a doll of Sheriff Woody from Disney’s popular Toy Story series, Reynolds explains how he helped one little boy.
“He had meningitis as a baby and to save his life, the doctors had to do multiple amputations. He refused to wear his prosthetics. They’re hot. They’re heavy. And as a two-year-old, he doesn’t understand why he would need to wear them.
“So I gave Sheriff Woody, his favorite character, the same exact amputations and created prosthetics for him that were identical to the boy’s. I told the boy that there was a snake in Woody’s boot after all and he has to wear fake legs now. Woody put his legs on, now it’s time your turn. It worked. He would put his legs on if Sheriff Woody put his on first,” Reynolds explained.
Keeping his designs cost effective is also one of his goals.
“Insurance normally doesn’t pay for any assistive technology. I had one client who got into a car accident in his 30s and lost most of his mobility from the neck down. He was a former computer science teacher and wanted to use the computer again,” Reynolds said. “A typical joystick mouse costs around $500. Every dime he has goes straight into nursing home care. So I built one out of a USB joystick and arcade-machine parts. The total cost for was $45 we were able to give it to him through one of our state grants. He didn’t owe us a penny.”
While Reynolds’s work changes people’s lives, working for Signal Centers has changed his own.
“Working here gives me a deeper appreciation for the things that I often take for granted,” he said. “There are so many days where I leave work thinking, ‘I never thought about not having this, not having the ability to do that.’ Suddenly all my problems seem so insignificant. It really does give me a deep appreciation for the things that I have.”
Beyond his work at Signal Centers, Reynolds also helps coordinate projects for the same design class he took at UTC.
“Students will tell me, ‘This is the first meaningful work I’ve ever done in my life. This is the first time I’ve built anything that mattered.’ They can see very clearly that their work has helped someone.”