GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — When Payton Todd was born on March 1, 2017, her mom, Tiffany Todd, didn’t know if she would survive the night.

She was 17 weeks early, weighed one pound and was 12 inches long.

“We’ve had lots of uphill battles since she was born. We spent 147 days in the NICU at Bronson Hospital,” she said.

Payton had six surgeries before she left the NICU.

“Our biggest challenge was just learning how she worked because she hasn’t developed like other children have, where six months you sit up and you know, you crawl and you walk. So our milestones are a little bit different,” Todd explained.

Payton also has cerebral palsy. She is now six years old and uses a wheelchair, which her mom pushes for her, but they have new evidence Payton may have the ability to navigate on her own with a power chair.

“She is the one telling us what she can do, what she can’t do, and man, she’s a spitfire,” Todd said.

Payton is able to tell her mom what she can do not through words but through action, thanks to a mobility study at Grand Valley State University.

“This is part of our Grand Valley Power Mobility project. The study we’re doing right now is funded by the NIH through a small business innovation research grant,” Dr. Lisa Kenyon, lead researcher for the study, said.

Researchers are using an indie trainer system to turn the participant’s own wheelchair into a power chair. The wheelchair sits on top of the base, which is on wheels, while a joystick connects to the front of the chair.

“We are exploring the effects of using our indie trainer systems on providing our wheelchair skills training to children who typically don’t have the opportunity to do such training,” Kenyon said.

Learning to use a power wheelchair can be a complicated activity for people with cerebral palsy, since communication happens differently. Kenyon and her team use simple video games to teach very specific power wheelchair skills by having participants use the same joystick that controls the trainer to pop a bubble on the screen.

“We hear a lot from families who come in and say, my child was evaluated for a power wheelchair and told he needed to learn the skills before he could get one. But how do you learn skills if you don’t have a power wheelchair?  So that’s what we’re investigating,” she explained.

Her team uses the Assessment of Learning Powered Mobility Use which is an instrument that looks at the process of learning and reflects understanding tool use with the joystick being the tool.

Tiffany Todd is very familiar with how her own daughter communicates and doesn’t need the assessment to realize what this experience has meant to Payton.

“The first time we strapped her into this device, the look on her face of sheer joy, that hey, I can move…  I think the independence that she can go grab a toy that she wants, that she can go from room to room. She can go outside and, and just tool around and, you know, and she’s her own person again, not having to depend on somebody else,” she said.

She hopes this program will shed light on what her daughter is capable of.

“Don’t let people tell you that your child can’t do something because, more often than not, they can,” Todd said.

GVSU is still accepting applications to be part of the study. For more information, click here.