A global movement that is changing people’s lives every day.

Words by Ros Tulloch

The e-NABLE Community is a truly altruistic group of volunteers who give up their time and talent to create prosthetic hands and upper limbs for people who need them most.

There are many people in the world who have either been born without upper limbs or have lost them due to war, accidents or natural disasters. Many of those people don’t have access to suitable solutions that could help make their everyday lives a little easier.

A 3D printed prosthetic hand could allow a child to throw a ball, help a mother to feed her baby or simply make everyday tasks like washing and dressing that little bit easier. Whatever the reason and wherever you are in the world, you can contact the amazing people who are part of the e-NABLE Community to ask for their help and a valiant volunteer will come to your aid.

We spoke to Jen Owen, owner and founder of e-NABLE to find out how this amazing movement began.

“In 2011 Ivan Owen created a metal puppet hand for a cosplay costume and afterward uploaded a photo to YouTube to show how it worked. Not long after, a carpenter in South Africa who had lost four of his fingers in a woodworking accident saw the design and contacted Ivan to ask if he could help make a single finger for him. They collaborated over the internet for almost a year and met in person in South Africa along with a family of a young boy named Liam who was born missing his fingers. Ivan took a small version of the metal hand with him to SA and they created the first prototype for Liam out of metal. It was wrist driven.

“They knew he would outgrow it so Ivan approached a 3D printing company and asked if they would donate a printer. They donated two – one for Ivan and one for the carpenter. Ivan taught himself how to 3D design and turned the metal hand into a 3D printable file and then shared it open-source online so that others could take it and improve it. A few months later, the e-NABLE Community formed with a few dozen volunteers who had 3D printers and wanted to help make hands too.”

In a very ‘pay it forward’ deed, Ivan decided not to patent his design, he saw it’s potential and he hoped that others would use it and improve on it, helping people across the world who could truly benefit from it.

“He chose to share it open source so that others could take the original design and improve it and hoped they would share their improvements back into the community. He didn’t want to profit from his design. He created it because there was a need in the world for low cost prosthetics and wanted to ensure that no one else could patent the design and keep the maker community from helping those who were in need.”

The community of volunteers started off with around 70 members, but as people shared their knowledge and innovative work stories, interest grew and in just a few short years the community had attracted thousands of talented people willing to share their expertise, time and creativity, all to help people who needed it.

Jen went on to explain how the community has evolved.

“It grew from about 70 volunteers to over 20,000 globally over about four years. In the beginning, recipients would contact the e-NABLE Volunteers and ask them to make the devices for them but now, there are more and more families and individuals who are making them by themselves and for themselves. Now it has gone from a group of 3D printing enthusiasts who found something exciting to use their printer for, to a global movement of makers who are sharing their ideas and designs open source all over the world with the hopes that their contributions will change a life for the better.

“I have been amazed at how widespread this community has grown. There are volunteers in over 100 countries worldwide, many of them are school children who have teachers who are using e-NABLE as an example in their STEM based learning projects. A real-world example of how they can use their ideas and imaginations to make a difference to the lives of others.

“I am overwhelmed with joy every time I see another image of another child getting a hand from one of our volunteers, but especially when that hand or arm has been created by a classroom of other kids. Knowing that for every one hand that a class delivers, there are 10-30 kids who are being inspired to think of ways they too can use technology to help others.”

When asked about the incredible global reach that the e-NABLE Community has achieved Jen admits that she could see the potential but knew that a lot of hard work would be needed to let people know about it. This is why she created the website and has been tirelessly populating and sharing stories on it ever since.

“When Ivan released the first design and we sat back and watched the e-NABLE Community form around the idea, I knew it was going to find its way to where it needed to go. I also knew that without someone sharing the stories about it, it wouldn’t get very far. My work on the website and for the community over the past few years has been a result of knowing that a great idea is a great idea but if no one talks about it – no one is going to know about it. So I focused my first few years on writing the stories on the website and helping get them seen by other media and then working with that media to get the stories out where volunteers could read and get involved.

Ivan and I knew that it would go far – we just didn’t expect to be able to watch it.”

Making A Difference

Few could imagine working for a cause that makes such a difference to people’s lives and for Jen, seeing the smile on a child’s face when they receive their prosthetic hand is something she could never tire of.

“There are a lot of things I love about my job. But I think my favorite is when I get to see another photo shared of another child who has gotten a 3D printed hand in a country where there is little to no healthcare and where they literally have no other option for prosthetics.

“I love all of the stories and photos – but those ones really hit me with pride in knowing that I am part of this amazing community of people from all walks of life that are eager to help make a child they may never meet, feel like a superhero with something as simple as a brightly colored plastic hand.”

This fascinating and selfless work is just the tip of the iceberg as Jen reveals some plans for the future as they launch into summer camps and providing 3D printers for schools.

“There are so many chapters in so many different countries now who are all doing amazing things and who have incredible plans for summer camps, learning opportunities, design reworks, hand-a-thons and other events that will help the community continue to grow. For me, I am working on helping a fellow e-NABLE Volunteer plan a summer camp for limb different children who want to create their own designs and help pair them up with an e-NABLE volunteer and a design engineer who can help them bring their ideas to life. I have plans to create an “Adopt a school” program for classrooms who do not have 3D printers and who are in underserved areas in the world where they have little access to any kind of technology but who want to participate in the e-NABLE Community as makers. I have some plans for some new design challenges coming up as well!”

Get Involved
There are many ways you can get involved with this global movement, from offering your services as a creator or by simply donating to this worthy cause to ensure this vital work can continue and grow, simply visit enablingthefuture.org to find out more.

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