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Jacob Breit adapting a toy
December 15, 2021

UW-Madison students tune toys to work for children with disabilities

Written By: Adam Malecek

For many kids, the holidays are indeed the most wonderful time of the year—especially when it comes to tearing through wrapping paper to reveal toys they’ve had their hearts set on for months.

But for children with disabilities, standard toys may not be designed in a way that’s universally accessible, and specially adapted toys are several times as expensive.

With that in mind, a student organization at the University of Wisconsin-Madison held a “toy tuning workshop” in November 2021 in the College of Engineering’s makerspace to tweak toys for 15 local families. The Global Health Innovation Club, an interdisciplinary group based in the college, draws students with interests in global health work, engineering, design and innovation. It hopes to turn the workshop into an annual event that reaches more kids with a range of medical complexities.

“We don’t really think about the children who have disabilities and how toys look for them,” says Taylor Chappell, an industrial engineering and computer science major who’s the club’s service event coordinator. “We’re part of the Global Health Innovation Club, but that also includes locally helping your community.”

The students, a mix of undergraduates and graduate students from the College of Engineering and beyond, followed open-source instructions for adapting the toys, while Darilis Suarez-Gonzalez, a teaching faculty member in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the group’s faculty mentor for the event, connected them with interested families. Most of the modifications involved switching controls from an activation button on the toy to a large, easy-to-press, external button.

“Play is not merely about fun—play offers physical, emotional, cognitive and social benefits,” says Suarez-Gonzalez. “Simple modifications can allow kids with different abilities to enjoy a toy and all the benefits that come from play. An adapted toy can cost over $80, whereas the same toy without adaptations costs only $15 to $20.”

The club is already planning to partner with UW-Madison’s McPherson Eye Research Institute to reach children with visual impairments in 2022. To express interest in receiving an adapted toy in 2022, please fill out the club’s form.

“We are eager to expand the scope of the event in 2022 to include adapted toys and games for individuals of all ages and abilities,” says Rebecca Alcock, a PhD student in industrial and systems engineering and president of the Global Health Innovation Club. “The benefits of receiving and interacting with toys and games must extend to everyone, and it’s awesome that we can use our hands-on engineering training to ensure the toys meet folks where they are, not the other way around.”