Stu­dents build hi-tech toys for dis­abled kids

The Washington Times Daily - - NATION - BY JA­SON DEAREN

JACK­SONVILLE, FLA. | Be­cause of her cere­bral palsy, 4-year-old Scar­lett Wil­gis has trou­ble open­ing her hands and can’t get around without help. Her par­ents have scoured store shelves and web­sites look­ing for toys for her, but have mostly been dis­ap­pointed.

“Find­ing the toys at Wal-Mart or Tar­get, they’re pretty much non-ex­is­tent,” said mom Dezaraye Wil­gis, sit­ting with Scar­lett in front of their twin­kling Christ­mas tree in St. Au­gus­tine. “Or if you get them through a med­i­cal sup­plier, they’re ex­tremely ex­pen­sive.”

While ma­jor toy mak­ers have changed with the times and sell dolls with wheel­chairs and crutches, those de­signed to be used by chil­dren with se­vere dis­abil­i­ties like Scar­lett are still dif­fi­cult, if not im­pos­si­ble, to find. Be­cause they have to be cus­tom­ized for each child, the cost can sky­rocket.

This co­nun­drum gave two Univer­sity of North Florida pro­fes­sors an idea: mix en­gi­neer­ing and phys­i­cal ther­apy stu­dents in a lab with the goal of con­vert­ing toys from store shelves into cus­tom-made fun for dis­abled chil­dren.

The Adap­tive Toy Project is now in its third year, and has drawn a five-year grant from the Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health. It is help­ing fam­i­lies like Scar­lett’s while giv­ing the stu­dents a dose of com­mu­nity ser­vice and real-world ex­pe­ri­ence that will stick with them long af­ter grad­u­a­tion.

Dr. Ali­son Cer­nich, a neu­ropsy­chol­o­gist and di­rec­tor at the NIH’s Eu­nice Kennedy Shriver Na­tional In­sti­tute of Child Health and Hu­man De­vel­op­ment, said the agency funded the pro­gram be­cause it forces stu­dents from dif­fer­ent fields to col­lab­o­rate and solve a prob­lem in the com­mu­nity.

“This pro­gram is get­ting stu­dents in the early phases of their train­ing think­ing about or­di­nary ob­jects, toys, and how to adapt those toys so that chil­dren with lim­i­ta­tions can use and play with them like chil­dren without lim­i­ta­tions,” she said.

On a re­cent day, the school’s small lab buzzed with the sound of tools and chat­ter as stu­dents cus­tom­ized cars for their new own­ers.

Chris Martin, an elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer­ing stu­dent, had re­moved the hood of Scar­lett’s car, ex­pos­ing its wires.

A large push but­ton re­placed the steer­ing, and light sen­sors mounted un­der­neath the car will al­low it to fol­low a line of tape along the floor when­ever Scar­lett hits the but­ton. Now, Scar­lett’s par­ents can de­sign routes for the car with tape, or use a re­mote-con­trol mode for fam­ily walks.

When Mr. Martin first met Scar­lett’s mother, “she ac­tu­ally cried, and it just made me want to work harder,” he said. “I just want to make it as per­fect as pos­si­ble for her.”

The cars re­tail be­tween $250 and $500; the cus­tomiza­tion makes them worth well over $1,000. The fam­i­lies, about 18 so far, get the cars free.

Mary Lundy, a UNF pro­fes­sor of phys­i­cal ther­apy who started the Adap­tive Toy Project with an en­gi­neer­ing col­league, said the stu­dents meet with fam­i­lies, go to ther­apy ap­point­ments and schools.

“En­gi­neer­ing stu­dents teach the phys­i­cal ther­apy stu­dents how to mod­ify ba­sic elec­tron­ics … and in the process en­gi­neers learn how to do peo­ple­cen­tered de­signs, and how to look at their clients dif­fer­ently,” Ms. Lundy said.

For the kids, it’s also a way to con­tinue im­por­tant ther­a­pies through play.

Dr. Peter Rosenbaum, a pro­fes­sor of pe­di­atrics at McMaster Univer­sity in Canada, said his field is in­creas­ingly fo­cus­ing on “aug­mented mo­bil­ity,” to give kids a way to move around so they can be more in­de­pen­dent.


Univer­sity of North Florida stu­dents (from left) Ja­son Pavichall, Chris Martin and Gar­rett Bau­mann work to cus­tom­ize a toy car so that it can be used by a girl with cere­bral palsy at the univer­sity in Jack­sonville, Fla.

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