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Frank Gray

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Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Terry Haffner demonstrates how he washes his hair in a shower specially designed for his needs by students at Trine University, the result of a yearlong collaboration.

Students’ shower design answers local artist’s need

– About a year ago, when I first wrote about Terry Haffner, a local artist and advocate for people with disabilities, he was busy advocating for himself, trying to qualify for Medicaid.

There was little question that Haffner qualified for help. He was born with no arms and only partial legs. He had lived with his parents much of his life, taking care of them while they took care of him.

Later he relied on a sister to help him until she developed health problems.

Eventually, Haffner ended up living by himself in a home modified to let him live almost independently. But he needed some in-home care, mostly to help him bathe.

That’s why he was applying for Medicaid, so he could get in-home care. But he was going through the same frustrations a lot of people do. Medicaid kept losing the documents he would submit. They’d schedule a telephone interview with Haffner, never call, then say he failed to make the interview.

It was a nightmare.

During our conversation that day, he lamented that he couldn’t shower with his artificial arms on, and with no arms he couldn’t turn the water on or off or open or close the shower door.

I wish, he said, someone would invent an automatic shower.

It was a passing mention like that that made the difference.

Haffner has a brother, Tim, an attorney who occasionally does legal work for Trine University in Angola. Another brother, Tom, an engineer in North Carolina, had pondered how to make an automatic shower.

Tim mentioned the idea of designing such a gizmo to Tom DeAgostino, the director of the university’s Innovation One.

He put out a notice to students, asking whether anyone was interested in working on the project, and got what he called an overwhelming response.

“We got to cherry pick the best students,” he said.

It took a year of thought and designing and investigations of issues such as what kind of brushes would clean a person but not leave scrapes.

By last month, though, the whole mechanism was designed and installed.

It includes a helmet with brushes that scrub his head and hair and tubes that feed shampoo, water sprays that include soap, and loofahs to scrub his body. Essentially, Haffner can enter the shower, be wetted down, soaped, scrubbed, rinsed and blown dry.

“It works great,” Haffner said. “I look at things like this and say, ‘I wish they would have done that 20 years ago.’ ”

It isn’t necessarily completely high tech. Students considered using voice-activated devices but decided against it, and one asked whether Haffner wanted a TV installed in the shower. He turned that down.

“I’m not going to be in there that long,” Haffner said.

Haffner said students told him that this is the type of stuff they go to school for. Haffner’s reaction was that he is constantly amazed at what is available in our own backyard that we don’t even know about.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.