Tetra Society of North America

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Tetra Society of North America
Founded 1987; 31 years ago (1987)
Founder Sam Sullivan
Website tetrasociety.org

Tetra Society of North America is a not-for-profit organization that provides volunteer engineers across Canada and the US to design and construct custom assistive devices for people with disabilities.


The Tetra Society was founded in 1987 in Vancouver, British Columbia, by quadriplegic Sam Sullivan. He recounts feeling trapped – not by his disability but by his inaccessible surroundings: “I couldn't use the washroom, shower, cook on my own. I couldn't even turn the doorknob to get out of my own apartment! It wasn’t long before I found that I was not alone; there were many frustrated people struggling with things so basic that most people would never think twice about them.[1]

A letter to the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of BC, explaining his situation, resulted in engineer Paul Cermak offering to help. Simple, low-tech fixes to Sullivan’s apartment made a vast difference.[2]

Word got around, and the demand for similar gizmos led Sullivan to form the Tetra Society. Building on this model, the non-profit now lists more than 300 volunteers in 45 chapters across North America. It states that, over the years, its volunteers have completed 5,000 projects for people with disabilities.

Tetra keeps to the formula of sending a volunteer engineer or technician to investigate low-tech but ingenious solutions to an individual’s day-to-day access problems.

Tetra devices[edit]

Tetra volunteers create devices that “facilitate education, work and recreation” by tackling barriers to mobility, personal care and communications. Projects can relate to the home, workplace, leisure location, or anything in between, such as a wheelchair or motor vehicle.[3]

The group instructs volunteers not to copy existing commercial devices; neither does it provide money for items not covered by medical insurance; it does not advocate for people with disabilities.

Tetra reports that there is no typical project as there is no typical client; volunteers’ work is as varied as the people they deal with.

However, some projects are more common than others: wheelchair cup-holders that enable a quadriplegic to drink with independence, cribs for older children, adaptations to tables and wheelchair-accessible school desks, transfer boards, wheelchair trays and bicycle modifications for people with balance problems.[4]

Projects that have received wider attention include:

  • A unique (mouth-operated) sip ‘n’ puff controller that enables a quadriplegic eight-year-old in Salt Lake City, Utah, to operate his electric train set.[5]
  • A workplace modification making possible employment of a 31-year-old Vancouver, BC, woman who suffered a brain injury after being struck by a drunk driver.[6]
  • A wheelchair-mounted flag holder that let Tetra founder Sam Sullivan to accept the Olympic and Paralympics flags at the 2006 Winter Olympics closing ceremony in Turin, Italy[7] and a wheelchair mounted catapult he used to ceremonially throw the first pitch that opened the Vancouver Canadians’ 2007 season.[8]
  • Modifications that enabled a seven-year-old boy with cerebral palsy to operate an electric car (“It was the first time that he was able to run something on his own.”)[9]
  • Enabling people with disabilities to use digital cameras, vehicle windshield wipers, or open a mailbox in their apartment building.[10]
  • Creating a Braille printing press for a Calgary entrepreneur.[11]
  • Making it possible for people with disabilities to access backcountry trails and parks, through the invention of an off-road wheelchair, the TrailRider.[12]
  • Enabling a woman with multiple sclerosis to successfully reach Everest Base Camp, Nepal.[13]
  • Making it possible for quadriplegic adventurer and filmmaker Brad Jacobsen to hike Vancouver Island’s challenging West Coast Trail.[14]
  • Creating a foot-pedal-operated guitar strummer for a St John’s, Newfoundland man who suffered partial paralysis after a stroke.[15]
  • Adapting a PlayStation 2 game controller for an 11-year-old quadriplegic boy.[16]

Affiliated societies[edit]

The Sam Sullivan Disability Foundation consists of six affiliated societies:


  1. ^ Sam’s story retrieved February 9, 2010.
  2. ^ Sam Sullivan: Still Reaching New Mobility, August 2006.
  3. ^ About Tetra retrieved February 9, 2010.
  4. ^ What we do, retrieved February 9, 2010.
  5. ^ Tetra Society: Innovative Solutions for Independence, Disaboom, retrieved February 9, 2010.
  6. ^ Disabled Doesn’t Mean Unable - Persons with Disabilities add to Workplace Diversity[permanent dead link] HR Voice, February 21, 2008.
  7. ^ Vancouver’s Sam Sullivan first quadriplegic to accept Olympic flag Vancouver Access 2010, January 25, 2006. .
  8. ^ Baseball returns with a health pitch Archived 2011-06-04 at the Wayback Machine. Vancouver Sun, June 19, 2007.
  9. ^ Thanks to the innovation of an occupational therapist, Dylan can be independent, and play just like any other little kid Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists, retrieved February 9, 2010.
  10. ^ Engineering students design for the disabled McMaster Daily News, April 13, 2005.
  11. ^ Tetra engineers devise a global solution to a pressing problem Gizmo, published Spring 2009.
  12. ^ BC innovation helps people[permanent dead link] The Martlet, Sep 18, 2008.
  13. ^ Mission Accomplished Island Bushwhacker, December 2007.
  14. ^ The Standing Spirit Project Archived 2011-03-22 at the Wayback Machine. New Abilities, Spring 2006 edition.
  15. ^ Tetra helps guitarist to keep on strumming Gizmo, Winter 2010 edition.
  16. ^ Web Story: Robert Richards Help Puts the Game Face On For A Quadriplegic Boy Archived 2011-07-16 at the Wayback Machine. Canadian Red Cross, retrieved February 18, 2010.

External links[edit]