Granting disabled students independence

A long-time High Desert ESD adaptive equipment specialist retires

By Tyler Leeds / The Bulletin

Published Dec 8, 2013 at 12:01AM

Jayden Tranby can now eat with his feet and even hold a fork between his toes. But the 4-year-old, who was adopted from China and has no arms, used to need a lot of help.

“When he first got here, he didn’t know how to eat anything. It was very, very hard,” said April Tranby, Jayden’s mother and a physical therapist.

To help Jayden eat, Tranby had the help of a device that could hold up sandwich slices and pieces of fruit using clips that rose from a plastic base. To eat, Jayden would just lean forward out of his chair to take a bite.

“Independence is really important to him,” Tranby said. “He likes to be able to run around and be on his own.”

It’s Allen Tenney’s job to help build independence into Jayden’s life. Tenney, an adaptive equipment specialist, has added small modifications to Jayden’s pre-K classroom at Westside Village Magnet School. At a table, Jayden has a special chair that allows him to reach his feet up to a slanted clipboard on the table where he can draw.

In the play area, he has another chair with a raised platform a few inches above the ground where he can manipulate blocks.

There are also smaller features, including a handle on a cabinet that Jayden can place his shoulder in to pull the door open. At home, Jayden even has a bike with a harness that wraps around his chest.

Given Jayden’s success, Tranby now has plans to adopt another child without arms from China, hoping to have him in Bend by the spring or summer.

“Really, so many people have helped Jayden gain his independence, but it’s Allen who has made such a huge, huge impact,” Tranby said.

Tenney, 65, is the man behind adaptive seats, handles, wheelchairs, jackets and other tools and toys spread across Central Oregon that, in his words, have helped students with disabilities “get through school as unnoticed by others as possible.”

Tenney has been working with the High Desert Education Service District since 1994, when he was based in a dark corner of the Bend-La Pine Schools administration building in a small shop. His operation has since expanded into a warehouse in northeast Bend.

The space is an archive of Tenney’s solutions to unexpected challenges, with modified wheelchairs, seats and other devices waiting to be modified for a new student with a different disability. But at the end of the school year, after 19 years on the job, Tenney will give up the shop to his successor, Bryan Malone.

‘It’s pretty simple’

Tenney’s made just about everything. The most typical jobs include wheelchair and seat adjustments, but he can rattle off a seemingly endless list that includes protective shields for everything from TVs to windows to even bus drivers and teachers who have students prone to spitting. A recent project involved turning a small bike into a fixed-gear bike so an immobile student can get more exercise. He often has to make customized jackets for students who need the feeling of constant pressure or added support, once adding tassels to a jacket because the student loved cowboys.

“These parents have had their hearts broken, but when you take the time to ask their kid what color they would want, it really helps,” Tenney said. “Kids bond so much more when they can have input into their stuff.”

Tenney described his most unique creation as a “moving toilet bowl seat.” The idea was to offer a young student whose physical development was stunted the ability to walk by having her stand in the middle of the seat, which resembles a padded ring, or, as Tenney suggests, a toilet bowl seat. Wheels were placed on poles coming down from the seat and the student could move by leaning on a small handle.

“My job is basically to find different ways to skin a cat,” Tenney said. “I think it’s pretty simple. I try to not over-make things.”

“What he does is pretty incredible. He uses the eyes of an occupational therapist to assess the needs of a student, and he uses a saw, welder and a whole lot of know-how to make the equipment he envisions,” said Paul Andrews, deputy superintendent of the High Desert ESD. “There are not many people with both of these skill sets.”

Andrews said Tenney was “poached” from St. Charles Bend, where he had worked as a traditional occupational therapist. Tenney’s work fits into a much wider net of services the High Desert ESD provides for students, which, among other programs, offers speech therapy and assistance for the visually impaired.

“We recognized that Allen was a diamond in the rough, and we wanted to use his skills more broadly than they were being employed at St. Charles,” Andrews said. “There’s plenty of people out there who are great handymen and can work in a shop, but it’s not about that. It’s about looking at a problem from the perspective of a child. What will help them focus in class and what will be comfortable for them? Allen can see that.”

A mobile shop with a welder, sewing machine and a 5,000-watt generator allows Tenney to fabricate devices for students attending schools in the ESD’s furthest corners, which stretch to Warm Springs, Fossil, Burns and other rural communities. But Tenney has also expanded his work outside of the school program’s official capacity using a shop he has at home.

“Some students who I helped and are now adults will sometimes come by asking me to help them with this or that,” Tenney said. “I think I’ll still do that when I stop coming in, and maybe consult with hospitals and work on other projects, too. ”

Two of a kind

Tenney has technically already retired, working only three days a week while Malone, 43, makes the shop his own.

“I had no idea this kind of position existed here, but a friend mentioned it in passing,” said Malone, who has lived in Bend for three years, previously working as a physical therapist. “My ears perked when I heard Allen was retiring, and I just followed my nose and now work in the shop, be it ever so humble.”

Malone, like Tenney, combines an understanding of physiology with an ability to turn materials into tools. His father was a draftsman in a cabinet shop, and he said, “Since I was little, I’ve just known how build things.”

“Allen’s leaving an impressive legacy, and it’s my good fortune to be following in his footsteps,” Malone said. “I’m just trying to soak up as much as I can before he goes, and to learn my way around the shop. Bit by bit, he’s accumulated all this stuff. It’s just a boneyard of invaluable, useful things.”

Malone said simply spending time in the shop, surrounded by Tenney’s solutions to so many past problems, has been a training in itself.

“Sometimes you just walk in the door and the solution is so immediately apparent because it’s just a modification to something I’ve already seen here,” Malone said. “But sometimes, well, the problem is so complex that you just need to think on it a few days. I wish I could tell you there was a formula, but there just isn’t.”

“We were lucky to find Bryan,” Andrews said. “He has the same two skills that made Allen so successful for so many years and with so many different students. He’s a PT, not an OT, but like Allen he understands the body and is quite handy.”

Of all Tenney’s creations, the one that stands out to Andrews is an off-road wheelchair that has allowed disabled students to join their classes on trips to the coast.

“It’s probably only been used for a few days, but without it, those students would have been totally left out,” Andrews said.

Tenney, typically, was modest about the wheelchair’s creation while appreciative of its impact.

“The modifications weren’t too hard, and all we had to do was test it in a long jump pit before using it,” Tenney said. “But, I will say, this has taken kids into the ocean who hadn’t even ever seen the thing before.”

— Reporter: 541-633-2160, tleeds@bendbulletin.com