Think about how much you rely on your hands. Now think about how different your life would be if you could no longer use them — especially if it was your JOB t use them. That’s what happened to 25-year-old Michelle Vandy. During a successful summer interning as an architecture trainee (while simultaneously creating illustrations for a friend’s published children’s book), Michelle began to lose the feeling in her hands. It started with a slight tingling sensation in her fingers, which spread to a cramping in her arms until she could no longer use her right hand at all to work. She shifted her work load onto her left hand for the remainder of her internship, but soon felt that tingling sensation in her other arm.
After a visit from the doctor, she was diagnosed with RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury). The condition is caused when your muscles, tendons, and soft tissue are overused from repetitive behavior. The doctor recommended that she stop working and after one or two months rest, her arms would be fine. Like most creatives, Michelle struggled with not being able to work and dove into some self help novels. It was here that she discovered a perspective that inspired her to search for a new system that allowed her to use her computer and to go back to school — all without the use of her arms.
Through this process she discovered innovative technologies that relied on eye tracking, voice dictation, motion sensors, and mobile apps for sketching and digital design. With help from her father, they constructed her first contraption that was an enlarged keyboard which she could type on with her feet. Next she tested out drawing on an iPad with a stylus held in her mouth. This process could essentially be summed up in three words: too much spit.
The perfect solution occurred by accident. Michelle was fiddling around with her external touchpad when she instinctually pressed onto it with her nose. Long story short, it worked! With some practice and a stand that lifted her touchpad to her face, Michelle had regained the ability to create by swiping and clicking with the tip of her nose and lips. She successfully finished her first school project from her on-campus apartment without worsening her condition, (she also transitioned her job trajectory from architecture to technology and entrepreneurship!). With her mobility renewed, she agreed to work for a young tech startup as their designer. The work load plus school would have been unmanageable if she still couldn’t use her hands, but this time she was working hands-free.
Right now Michelle is living in San Francisco and working for a behavioral medicine company called Omada Health where she uses Photoshop and Illustrator everyday. At first she was self conscious to share her unique work process with her coworkers, but everyone has accepted her quirky work style with open arms. (Check out some of her amazing work.)
She reflects, “The first few weeks were tough. I remember the first day setting up my new laptop trying to disguise the twitching fingers and cramping thumbs. When I reluctantly realized it was time for me to unveil my nose-pad, I got very nervous . . . . oh god, I was so awkward about it. But my workmates were understanding and didn’t seem to judge me at all. The team looked beyond my peculiarities ands saw that I indeed could produce work. I did — and still do.”
Her rig consists of simple tools that you can buy off of Amazon. A desktop Manfrotto tripod, Apple’s Magic Trackpad, a tripod adapter plate, and velcro strips. Take a peek at this video below to watch how she produces her work. Overall, it seems as if the only condition Michelle is truly incurable from is her addiction to create. Whether you use your toes, fingers or nose to work, a solution is never far from reach.