Holiday cheer: students build hi-tech toys for disabled children

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Because of her cerebral palsy, 4-year-old Scarlett Wilgis has difficulty opening her hands and can’t do without help. Her parents have scoured the shops and websites looking for toys for her, but mostly disappointed.

“The find of the toys at Walmart or Target, they are almost non-existent,” said mother Dezaraye Wilgis, sit with Scarlett in the front of their sparkling christmas tree in St. Augustine. “Or if you put them through a medical supplier they are extremely expensive.”

While the big toy makers have changed with the times and sell dolls with wheelchairs and crutches, which are designed to be used by children with severe disabilities such as Scarlett are still difficult, if not impossible, to find. Because they need to be adapted for each child, costs can quickly.

This riddle gave two University of North Florida professors an idea: mix engineering and physical therapy students in a lab with the goal of converting a toy from the store shelves in custom-made fun for children with a disability. The Adaptive Toy Project is now in its third year, and has signed a 5-year grant from the National Institutes of Health. It is the help of families such as the Scarlett’s, while the students get a dose of community service and real-world experience that they long after graduation.

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

“This program is for students in the early stages of their training to think about ordinary objects, toys, and how to adapt these toys so that children with disabilities can use and play with them as children without limitations,” she said.

On a recent day, the school is small lab rang with the sound of instruments 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 the wires.

A large push button to replace the steering wheel and light sensors mounted under the car will allow it to follow a line of tape on the floor when Scarlett hits the button. Now, Scarlett ‘ s parents can the design of the routes for the car with tape, or use a remote-control mode for family walks.

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

The cars retail between $250 and $500; the adjustment makes them worth the effort and more than $1,000. The families, about 18 so far, the cars for free.

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

“Engineering the students learn the physiotherapy students, the change of the basic electronics … and in the process, engineers learn how people-centered design, and how to look at their customers differently,” Lundy said.

For the children it is also a way to remain important therapies due to play.

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

“We can’t fix them,” Rosenbaum said. “What we can do, is say: ‘What would a child at this age and stage of development should do if they are not their impairment? How can we give them that experience?’ This changes the life of everyone around her, and her perspective of herself.”

UNF’s program is one of 60 related toy cars for children with disabilities internationally that are part of the Go Baby Go-network, but it is the only one who has enlisted students to customize the vehicles for free.

After weeks of work, Scarlett finally tested the car, Martin and his colleagues built. They strapped her in and shows her how to press the push-button in the toys she would hopefully use it for at least three or four years. The car drove forward, and Scarlett rocked back and forth. Her mother fought against the tears and her father walked next to her.

“For her, she will be able to get out more and not be caught by a wheelchair … and for us it was fun to see her interact with other children. It’s amazing,” Dezaraye said.


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