A Design for Freedom

Spring 2023

Dan Keplinger using the stylus to interact with a computer.
“Working with the students lets me see new ways to do things, and the new crown will make my life a bit easier.”
— Dan Keplinger

It may look like a simple contraption of nylon straps, molded polycarbonate strips, and foam padding, but to a local artist, it represents so much more: a voice, the ability to communicate thoughts and ideas, and freedom of expression.

“Art gives me a way to express myself without anybody interpreting for me,” says Dan Keplinger, whose severe cerebral palsy prevents him from both speaking intelligibly and from using his hands to create the art that is his living and lifeblood.

Instead, his stylus and paintbrushes are held by a carbon-fiber rod mounted on a “crown” strapped around his head and under his chin, allowing him to use head movements to create impressionist figurative works of art that have been exhibited in shows from New York to San Francisco.

Though Keplinger has used a similar device to paint and draw since he discovered his prodigious talent in high school in the 1990s, the current version—which includes high-tech features aimed at enhancing its ergonomics and functionality—was created by a team of Johns Hopkins engineering students who are part of the university’s Volunteers for Medical Engineering group.

Led by senior mechanical engineering student Roberto Flores, VME members worked with the Image Center of Maryland, a nonprofit that pairs area residents dealing with disability challenges with volunteer engineers who create devices aimed at enhancing their independence.

“Dan’s crown is one of three projects we tackled this year,” says Flores. “It had major issues after years of being used for hours a day, and we provided some improvements.”

Those upgrades included not only making the crown more durable and comfortable—the chin strap was so loose that the artist had to work with his mouth open, so his lower jaw held it in place—but also customizing it to hold the stylus required for use with a touchscreen. When the student team first met the artist, his stylus was attached with paint-splattered masking tape.

Keplinger asked for the ability to easily add (or remove) a pencil eraser to the stylus tip so he could shift between creating art and typing on his keyboard. (Typing without a tip could damage the stylus.)

“Before, he would try to use his hands to hold the eraser and move his head to manipulate the stylus to get it on the end. Sometimes, it would fall, and he couldn’t retrieve it,” says team member Melody Lei, a senior mechanical engineering major and project lead.

The team’s solution was to create a 3D-printed plastic base that is mounted on the artist’s desk and holds the eraser. Keplinger uses his head to direct the stylus into the base, snapping the eraser on and off as needed.

“Working with the students lets me see new ways to do things, and the new crown will make my life a bit easier,” says the artist.