March 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Make It Universal


Toy hacking during a DIYAbility workshop.

Jim Tiffin was at an Edcamp STEAM in New Jersey a few years ago when he came across a session called Toy Hacks. A group of people were manipulating battery-operated toys. They were taking them apart, identifying the controls and switches inside, soldering an extra switch to each, and putting the toy back together. That way, kids with limited mobility could play with the toys.

“If you look at any toy, there’s a button that activates it—that makes the monkey walk along banging cymbals,” says Tiffin, formerly director of academic technology at the Harley School in Rochester, NY, and currently director of media and maker programs at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School (MVPS) in Atlanta, GA. “What could you do for a kid who didn’t have access?” With an adapted toy, “If you can move your head, elbow, mouth, or some part of the body,” you can make the monkey make music—and the “dinosaur roar or the ballerina spin.”

A spark went off for Tiffin. “I thought, ‘this is cool; this is something I can do with my sixth graders,’” he says. “I ran a tech class where we did a lot of tinkering with 3-D printing, moviemaking,” and other projects. “The culminating activity was to hack toys for kids with disabilities.”


A DIYAbility “Toy Hacking for the Holidays” event.

The hacking lesson was one of many tech empowerment initiatives from John Schimmel and Holly Cohen, cofounders of DIYAbility, a nonprofit organization in New York City with the mission of helping people create and master adaptive technology. The two met at New York University (NYU), where Schimmel teaches assistive technology and web development courses at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), and Cohen, an occupational therapist and assistive technology practitioner, teaches rehabilitation at the Steinhardt Department of Occupational Therapy. The DIYAbility motto: “Empowering people with and without disabilities to make their world.”

“The big thing is, how do you get people with disabilities to make their own tools and devices?” says Schimmel. “It’s a matter of seeing individuals take what they learn and do it themselves, or teaching them how to do their own hack.”

UW DO-IT Program CoMotion Makers Space on 7/22/15 (C) 2015 Karen Orders Photography

Freshman Hannah Werbel, who has a visual impairment, with a drill press at the University of Washington
CoMotion makers space. CoMotion pictures copyright Karen Orders Photography

That sentiment is driving a growing movement toward accessible making nationwide. While assistive devices had a long history that preceded iPads and soldering irons, today, “the computer is the great equalizer,” Cohen says. The maker movement is growing up, alongside cheap, assistive DIY innovations that can be life-changing. As those two developments overlap, demand for empowered making is gaining momentum in universities, libraries, and elsewhere—and also driven by individuals with disabilities and their families.

“Our community needs more structured opportunities for STEM learning, from accessible tools available during classroom instruction to inclusive maker spaces [to] coding courses whose instructors are aware of nonvisual ways of working,” says Chancey Fleet, assistive technology coordinator at the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library branch of the New York Public Library.”At the Library, we’re always working on new and innovative ways to offer accessible tools for the community to use. In the future, with the right resources, I would like to incorporate programs like coding classes and makers spaces that can help provide a creative outlet for our patrons.”

UW DO-IT Program CoMotion Makers Space on 7/22/15 (C) 2015 Karen Orders Photography

University of Washington associate professor Kat Steele shows students with disabilities
the hand tools available to them in the CoMotion maker space.

The University of Washington (UW) recently released a set of guidelines for maker space universal design to make them accessible to people with disabilities.  Funded by a three-year, $836,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, UW’s AccessEngineering program aims to increase the participation of disabled people in engineering degrees. The university’s new CoMotion Makerspace has some of the expected high-end maker tech—soldering irons, laser cutters, sewing machines, and more—as well as adjustable-height whiteboards, tables on wheels, magnifying glasses, and other features that make the workshop practical for more students to use. “I want to do something in the STEM field,” says UW freshman Hannah Werbel, who is visually impaired and has used the CoMotion space. “I am thinking about some sort of engineering or physics.”

Meanwhile, public libraries are beginning to develop programs that bring young gamers and makers of all abilities into the general mix.

Inclusive hacking

After the New Jersey hacking session, Tiffin reached out to the Mary Cariola Children’s Center in Rochester, which serves kids with multiple disabilities, and arranged for his students to adapt toys for the children there. He also set up an instructive Google Hangout between his students and Schimmel. “We got spin art machines, radios, ballerinas, and all kinds of toys. We disassembled them, using mirrors to find the deactivation switches” and adapted the toys.

“John says that when someone gets [an ordinary] toy for someone with a disability, they think they’re doing something nice,” Tiffin says. “The problem is, the kids aren’t physically able to play with them. It’s like being hurt twice.”

When Tiffin’s students presented the toys to the Mary Cariola students, “It was very emotional,” Tiffin says. “What came out of that was the importance of taking what we do and doing it for others.” He just opened a new maker space at MVPS and is planning a similar program. “That will be one of the first things we do.”

At a Manhattan storefront space shared with the Adaptive Design Association, Schimmel and Cohen lead regular workshops on toy hacking and other activities. The DIYAbility website sells $20 Toy Hacking Kits and offers nine-step toy hacking instructions. If you buy a retail switch-accessible toy, “You can pay upward of $100,” Cohen notes.

During the workshops, “We require the person to bring their own toy and batteries and we supply the rest—soldering iron, wire, switch jack,” and more. “We make sure people get the basics of soldering. For example, if someone can only use their head, an accessibility switch can be situated behind the head. Family members come to help people with [limited] mobility.”

Cohen also leads sessions and webinars in hacking computer mice and making the most of the iPad’s accessibility features. “A lot of adaptive mice can be controlled with your head or your mouth,” she notes.  Workshop participants will “take apart the mouse and solder a switch into the mouse, add a port and a plug and a capability switch, and put it by [the part of their body with] the strongest movement.” An October DIYAblity webinar covered the topic of “Using an iPad as an assistive technology device.”

Schimmel and Cohen also developed Capacita, an accessible game controller for people with physical impairments, including those who may not have use of their hands. The device earned DIYAbility recognition as one of New York City’s Next Top Makers. Participants can use a mouse, keyboard, or other computer assistive technology to play.

But as Schimmel sees it, Capacita has the potential to give people much more than a game controller. “The thing I like about Capacita is that we want to use it as a way for people with disabilities to think about programming as a career,” he says. “We give little codes and snippets, and people could make their own game controller. It’s open enough that a person could use HTML Javascript or Python to get their feet wet with programming.”


DIYAbility cofounder John Schimmel (left)
with Matthew Altan and his iPad holder.

Eighteen-year-old Matthew Altan met Schimmel during a DIYAbility session at NYU. “He had an iPad in one hand and a laptop in the other,” says Schimmel. Matthew, who has cerebral palsy and uses a power chair, has limited mobility and speech. “His iPad is his communication device. His laptop is his browser,” says Schimmel. Matthew uses his index finger to manipulate them.

When Matthew showed up at a DIYAbility workshop that had tools including a ShopBot Buddy and a MakerBot Replicator 3-D printer, “John was like, ‘what are we going to make?’” says Matthew’s mother, Elda Altan, a client services delivery executive at Dell. “‘We have a 3-D printer; what are we going to do?’”

“Matthew wanted to make an iPad holder,” says Schimmel. He designed it using a track pad on the laptop, and then “we put on our safety goggles.” After that, “we brought his file over and showed him how the computer could drive the CNC machine.” CNC, or Computer Numerical Control, machines convert CAD (Computer Aided Design) software designs into coordinates that can be sent to a cutter. “You give it a design file and it cuts it out for you,” says Schimmel.

Matthew has “what a school district would consider a severe disability,” says Schimmel. “He would never be able to take shop class. One of the big things you can do is [use] the computer.” But, he says, “[Matthew’s] school does not have computer science classes. They’re missing the boat.”

The iPad holder was a success. “He’s still using the iPad holder. It’s his work of art,” says Altan. Far beyond that single achievement, however, “he wants to be a smart-home engineer,” she says. The family is building a new accessible home in Queens, NY, and Matthew, with some tips from Schimmel, is involved in the design. “John would send him tidbits on the topic and write, ‘check this out,’” says Altan. Google recently interviewed Matthew for his input on pain points technology. “He wants sensors on his chair and back and feet to be able to give alerts when he’s been there too long,” Altan explains.

Public libraries


Inclusive gaming at Brooklyn Public Library.

“A lot of people in the disability community play video games,” notes John Huth, young adult librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library’s (BPL) Child’s Place for Children with Special Needs. An inclusive gaming program Huth developed for teens led in turn to an accessible maker program for young people at BPL.  Launching BPL’s Adaptive Gaming Arcade, “we looked at different adaptive technology and stumbled into the back door of the making world.”

BPL’s gaming arcade “can account for every disability” with “a diverse array of technologies” for hands-free play, Huth says, including accessibility features for the Xbox 360, PlayStation4, Nintendo Wii, and Atari 2600. Huth enables kids to play by placing buttons on their bodies and chairs, using chin-mounted joysticks, and puff and blow switches, controlled by breathing. “Some of the other kids will say, ‘I want to use that one,’” Huth says. “They don’t see it as accessible technology. They look at it as a crazy controller.”

Developing his Universal Makerspace program, “We wanted to create a maker space that was accessible to people despite their abilities,” Huth says. He didn’t wait around for a grant. “We received some money for the arcade, but we did our maker space with spit, duct tape, love, and fairy dust.” With a mix of high and low-tech activities, he provides kids with the usual craft materials, plus accessible scissors and modified paintbrushes with a bulb-shaped handle that are easy to manipulate.

The programs take place in “a glassed-in wall space so people can see what’s going on. We didn’t want to have a room with teens with disabilities off to one side,” Huth explains. While anyone can join, he gives priority to kids attending schools in District 75, encompassing New York City schools for students with special needs.

DIYABility_BPL_Alligator puppet 2

A stop-motion animation workshop with puppets at Brooklyn Public Library. Photo by Bodi Du

Partnerships are key to Huth’s program. For a recent workshop focused on stop-motion animation, created with iPads, he sought support from the organization CinemaKidz. “They brought in armature manipulable puppets that were accessible” to participants with limited mobility, Huth says. During a recent, low-tech activity involving sneaker making and decoration, Don D’vil, founder of the Hip Hop and sneaker culture site Sneakerbeatz, was on hand to help out and chat with attendees. D’vil leads free sneaker design workshops that he uses as an opportunity to discuss economics, math, and other topics with young people.

John Huth during a sneaker making workshop at Brooklyn Public Library.

John Huth during a sneaker making workshop
at Brooklyn Public Library.

At other BPL workshops, “I just break out LEGO Mindstorm and littleBits,” Huth says. He notes that the easy manipulation of littleBits, with magnetized parts that emit light and sound when a circuit is connected, work well with his makers. “Cause and effect is a big component of learning for somebody who may struggle to see those components in the real world,” Huth notes. He also favors cardboard. “If we were talking about metal and screws, those would be difficult for people of different abilities to manipulate.”

“The most rewarding is the social aspect,” adds Huth, noting that many of these kids’ primary companions are their aides or educators in institutionalized settings. Transitioning to adulthood, “they’re told they need to be more independent,” while at the same time, “their social options are becoming more constrained” than those of their typically developing peers.

In fact, Huth loves it “when they’re not really doing the work and they’re sitting there talking and giggling,” he says. “I’m thinking, ‘this is the best thing that could have happened.’”

The future

In time, universal maker spaces may become more common, through initiatives like the mini-grant program from AccessEngingeering at the University of Washington, which provides grants of under $3,000 to projects that support universal design projects that can meet the needs of all participants. What will those spaces look like? UW’s CoMotion Lab provides a vision. Kat Steele, a UW assistant professor of mechanical engineering and an advocate for diversity in engineering, says that it was key to include a range of tactile rapid prototyping materials at CoMotion for brainstorming. “People with vision problems can take pipe cleaners and clay and put together something” tangible, she says, in order to convey ideas three-dimensionally rather than visually.

UW DO-IT Program CoMotion Makers Space on 7/22/15 (C) 2015 Karen Orders Photography

Students with disabilities and mentors use a laser cutter at the CoMotion maker space.

In addition, while flexibility and adjustable features are important, “organization” of the space was paramount to “make sure the dichotomy between people with visual impairments and people in wheelchairs” was bridged, she says. They meant that “big tools, 3-D printers, and laser cutters need to be in defined locations so that people with vision problems can make a mental map of the space” and find what they need. The maker space also includes quiet areas that filer out noise to make them more comfortable for people with hearing impairments or neurodevelopmental disorders. Some CoMotion regulars include participants in a DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) program for teens at CoMotion, focused on getting more people with disabilities involved in the community.

Werbel was one of those teens. She grew up using tools in her father’s wood shop to build objects, including shelves to organize her room and a model boat. “I really like problem solving,” she says. People who are visually impaired must be “being really, really organized,” she adds, because it can be hard to locate things. “I have a lot of tools I use to help me see better,” including color-coded and textures hangers she designed that distinguish her long- and short-sleeved shirts.

Engineering and physics also “involve a lot of problem solving,” notes Werbel. “You have to have a certain level of creativity and logic, which I really like. I like that aspect, [plus] the hard sciences— physics and engineering—are things that you can apply to everyday life.”

Everybody should have “the opportunity to create things and use technology have the opportunities to create solutions to their own problems,” Werbel believes, because their solutions can be more intuitive than ones conceived by people without disabilities.

“There are so many different way people are using [CoMotion]. it’s quite amazing,” Werbel adds, from people sewing to a student who created a 3-D printed molecule “just to see how it would work.” With “all these ideas, it’s a really cool space for people to be creative and think about problems and how you would devise solutions.”

Getting the tools

If there’s one book to read on this subject, says Schimmel, it’s Henry Viscardi’s 1959 work Give Us the Tools. Viscardi, born without legs, started an organization called Abilities, Inc. in 1952 that employed thousands of people with disabilities in a variety of professions, including jobs in the department of defense. They included people with cerebral palsy and visual impairments, along with disabled veterans and others. Viscardi proved that “people with disabilities can make things,” Schimmel says.

At the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies, grad students, under the leadership of Mega Subramaniam, associate director of information policy and access center, partnered with the District of Columbia Public Library to develop an accessible maker workshop and are continuing research in the area, says Subramanian.

There is still work to be done. “As to 3-D printing, I would say that design software, including that used for 3-D design and printing, usually lacks meaningful nonvisual accessibility,” says Fleet. “The gains we’ve seen in access to text, the web, and Office-style productivity software in the last decade have not been mirrored in the worlds of technology for arts, sciences, and design.”

“Just because you lose your eyesight,” she says, “doesn’t mean you lose your creativity.”

Sarah Bayliss About Sarah Bayliss

Sarah Bayliss (, @shbayliss) is associate editor, news and features, at School Library Journal.