Engineering students’ camera mount for wheelchair users is ready for its close-up

Priyanka Jalan attaching camera mount to wheelchair
Priyanka Jalan, program manager and Iniyan Manikandavelu, 3D printing assistant, at Enabling Engineering, demonstrate a new durable, low-cost wheelchair camera mount at Ell Hall on May 10. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

For Julie-Marie Chibekete, a documentary filmmaker from Malawi who uses a wheelchair, setting up a shot required more than just a good eye.

“She depended on others to set up shots to do her filmmaking,” says Jody Santos, associate teaching professor at Northeastern University and founding executive director of the Disability Justice Project, a nonprofit media organization that makes filmmaking more accessible for disabled filmmakers in developing countries.

But Chibekete, a fellow with the Disability Justice Project, is no longer dependent, thanks to students in the Northeastern’s Enabling Engineering club who designed a new durable, low-cost wheelchair camera mount. 

“It brings independence,” Chibekete says. “It brings a smile.”

The Enabling Engineering club applies engineering to enable and empower individuals with disabilities. The wheelchair camera mount was one of several projects members of the club unveiled at a recent presentation.

Rising third-year students Olivia Peters Van Aalst, an electrical and computer engineering major, and Alexandros Paliouras, an electrical engineering major also pursuing a minor in sustainable energy systems, took on several engineering challenges when presented with Chibekete’s predicament. 

First, they had to make a product that met not only Chibekete’s needs, but the needs of other potential filmmakers who use wheelchairs. Thus, the mount had to be flexible enough and adjustable enough to work with different wheelchairs, filmmakers of varying heights, different cameras and more. But it also had to be stable and sturdy. 

“We were trying to make a one-size-fits-all device that is applicable to any situation,” Paliouras says. “We weren’t measuring anything to meet a requirement, we had to meet a range.”

Moreover, the camera mount had to be simple to use and assemble and much cheaper than other alternatives. 

The result was a $58 camera mount that attaches to the footrest of the wheelchair, adjusts 25 inches vertically and 9.8 inches horizontally, and can hold up to 3.5 pounds. The mount will go to Chibekete for testing and feedback, and then Santos hopes to make more of the product and ship them to other fellows around the world.

“The whole goal of the Disability Justice Project is to make our media—and the media production process itself—more accessible,” Santos says. “This is a huge step in that direction.”

Paliouras said that he enjoyed the project because it addressed not only an engineering need, but a social need.

“There’s the engineering side of it: getting experience in building something that hasn’t been built before, and you get to solve something and get gratification from that,” Paliouras says. “Then there’s the social aspect: someone out there needs my help to build something because they are passionate about filmmaking and can’t do it.”

“I don’t feel like the product we made is particularly difficult to make,” Paliouras continues. “But I feel like from a social standpoint and in helping other people—that’s what I want to do as an engineer and in the future.” 

Peters Van Aalst says she enjoyed the project because it offered “flexibility for us to play with ideas and figure out what works and what doesn’t.”

“I hadn’t really had any outside-of-class practice experience and (the project) was an outlet to kind of do that,” Peters Van Aalst says.

Meanwhile, Chibekete just wants to get to work.

“I’m just so happy,” Chibekete says. “I wish it was just here.”

Reached at her home in Malawi, Chibekete says she is excited to start using the new camera mount and plans to make a short documentary about it for other filmmakers. 

Cyrus Moulton is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @MoultonCyrus.