Rich Fabend's woodworking -- and his
other projects, for that matter -- have a specific purpose: "My
sole purpose is to help people with disabilities," Rich said.
He does this through a variety of
adaptive products, made using wood and other materials, that he
shares on his site HandiHelp.net. Rich also has a blog, a presence on
Facebook, and guest columns on other sites aimed at providing
information to the disabled, including Christopher Reeve's. "When
I was originally recovering from my injury, I was dumbfounded at the
prices of things made for people with disabilities," Rich said.
"I want to help other people avoid the frustration process I had
to go through."
Rich was a semi-retired high school
teacher when a wave struck him down during a Caribbean vacation in
1999, leaving him a quadriplegic. Before his injury, Rich had been a
casual builder, making some outbuildings and some furniture for his
home, including a dry sink and cabinets. Hardwoods stymied him,
however: "I couldn't seem to get them built real well, so I kind
of restricted myself to pine."
After his injury -- and the sticker
shock at the prices of adaptive items -- he began making things
himself, with some assistance from his wife and son. At the
encouragement of friends, he started the HandiHelp website as a
platform to share his ideas and those other people sent in.
For example, Rich has a page dedicated
to "Wooden Handles." They begin with a 1" dowel, into
which a sleeve is inserted, usually by means of an Allen wrench.
Putting a crosspiece on the handles has meant that Rich has been able
to strap binoculars to them so he can hold and look through them.
Making those handles, Rich said, is "very time-consuming, but
satisfying." As a result of his injury, "my hands are in a
semi-gripped closed position. I can saw with a hand saw or a coping
saw. I'm able to drill; I can get a drill in my hand and press it
into the wood, usually with my head." He also uses a Dremel for
some activities, mainly things like smoothing edges on PVC pipe or
"A lot of people become disabled,
and they become caught up in the idea that if they can't do things
they way they used to, they can't do them. I encourage people to
change their way of thinking," Rich said. "Things can be
done; it's a matter of how much time and persistence you're willing
to put into it. There's almost always a solution."
For example, for Rich himself, "It's
almost impossible for me to use a screwdriver, but things with an
Allen wrench usually work really well." Citing the quotation
from the ancient Greek Archimedes, "Give me a lever long
enough ... and I shall move the world," Rich notes that
adding pipes, sometimes slotted into each other in a series, to his
wrenches, will allow him to turn almost anything.
He also receives assistance from his
wife and son, noting that, "My wife is indispensable in
assisting me when I get to a point where I can't quite complete
something." His son, who shared Rich's interest in woodworking
as he grew up, has cut fence posts into 10" or 12" pieces,
which Rich then drills with a 3/4" bit, followed by a 3/8"
hole beneath it where he inserts a wooden dowel for a perch, and
gives out as suet feeders for Christmas gifts.
After Rich started doing jigsaw puzzles
as therapy, but had difficulty picking up even the larger pieces
designed for people with arthritis, his son made frames with raised
edges that allow Rich to work the puzzle piece toward the edge of the
frame and pick it up. They worked so well, Rich said, that he had his
son make him a large raised-edge frame for his worktable. "If
I'm using a screw or something like that, I can get it to the edge of
the frame to either pick it up myself or use a magnet to pick it up.
It's extremely simple, but useful for individuals with grip or range
of motion problems."
His site, however, is not limited to
ideas that Rich has generated himself. One project, a cutting board,
came about because someone contacted him about having seen a board
with two nails protruding from it that were used to hold steady the
item being cut. Rich used plywood to create such a board and has also
shared the instructions for another cutting board, this one created
by a friend, that has a knife permanently fastened to it so that
bread, vegetables, etc., can be placed under the knife and pressure
exerted on it.
With his desire to help others, Rich
likes to respond to requests such as that for the cutting board. He
has a particular desire to help returning wounded veterans, noting
that, while they may be very eager and motivated at first, "I
know there's going to be a time in their life when they realize how
demanding their new lifestyle is. I have a very strong desire to help
That's one reason some of the projects
Rich is most proud of are his adaptations that allow disabled people
to participate in activities like hunting and fishing -- activities
he says that many veterans want to resume. "I love being
outdoors," Rich said, "and when I was recovering, I thought
that would be impossible to return to. The ability to get back to
that was wonderful for me."
He's made a trigger adapter that allows
him to shoot by pulling on a knotted string that goes in his mouth,
while steadying the gun with his hands -- and managed to bag two
turkeys after building this. For fishing, Rich made a casting adapter
with a long piece of 3/8" dowel with a slit cut in it with a
coping saw. He fastened this on the fishing rod, and tied a knot in
the line. "The knot catches and holds the line in place, and the
centrifugal force of my cast pulls the line out of it. I can cast 15
to 20 yards with a little piece of wood taped to my fish pole. It
amazes me how well it works."
You can find instructions for all of
these items on his site. "I try to put as much as I can out
there, for an individual to make, or to have a friend or a
professional nearby make it for them." Many people, Rich said,
such as woodworkers, machinists, etc., are willing to help the
disabled in their neighborhoods, but people don't necessarily seek
Rich, on the other hand, is putting all
of his information out there for free, and it's being used worldwide.
His site has been translated into different languages -- including
Spanish, at the request of the government of Spain -- and is part of
the Global Disability Rights Library, a portion of the WiderNetProject (providing Internet-based information to developing countries
with limited Internet access).
He sums up his philosophy on the
homepage of his site: "Believing that something is possible is
the first step in taking control of your situation...Allowing
yourself to be sidelined by difficulties, frustration or failure is
counterproductive." In fact, Rich goes on to say, "I am
constantly thinking about new ways to do things, revisiting the tools
and ideas I have already come up with to try and improve them or make
them more multifunctional."