How to Adapt Toys Across Abilities
By Holly Nester
March 2, 2020
The T-Rex rumbles forward on great, rubbery haunches as he roars menacingly. Powering both his gait and his growls is a switch at the bottom of one clawed foot—yet it’s too tiny for the grasp of many children with disabilities.
Play is an important part of every child’s life. Yet not all toys are universally accessible, and those that have been commercially adapted for children with disabilities can be expensive. Fortunately, many off-the-shelf toys can be modified with just a few inexpensive parts found in a hardware store.
Each December, the Training and Technical Assistance Center (T/TAC) at Virginia Tech sponsors Hacking for the Holidays, a workshop that offers tips for adapting toys for a broad range of children with disabilities. Teachers, parents, and other enthusiasts join us to learn how to turn frustration into fun. Over the years, we’ve found a few tips for adapting toys that bring a smile to a child’s face.
Don’t overspend. Toys produced for children with disabilities can cost $150 or more. Yet you may already have suitable toys at home that can be adapted, or you may find great candidates on the clearance aisle of major stores following the holidays.
Choose the right toy. Single-function toys that talk, move, or play music all work well. While battery-operated toys are the easiest, a range of toys can be adapted. Avoid toys activated by motion or vibration. Look instead for toys with on/off buttons; remote-controlled vehicles; dolls or stuffed animals with push buttons on the belly, hand, foot, or paw; and toys with buttons that turn, like Etch-a-Sketch.
Keep it simple. The easiest way to adapt a toy is with a battery interrupter. This small device allows you to bypass a toy’s on/off button and create a new on/off switch. Inserting the copper end of the device into the battery compartment interrupts the flow of electricity, and once you hook an ability switch into the jack you have a switch-accessible toy. (You can also make your own battery interrupter using just speaker wire, copper tape, and a 3.5mm mono jack.) Children who cannot reach out and toggle a traditional on/off button can use the adapted switch to activate the toy—and their imagination.
Try out your soldering skills. For plush push-button or remote-controlled toys, cut the wires running from the control panel to the activation button, solder each wire to one of the two strands of stereo wire, and then solder a mono jack at the other end.
Adapting toys for children with disabilities is simple to do and inexpensive, yet it can yield priceless results for children around the world.
Holly Nester is coordinator of low-incidence disabilities in the Training and Technical Assistance Center (T/TAC) at Virginia Tech. This Virginia Department of Education program, based in the Virginia Tech School of Education, offers resources for teachers and families of students with disabilities. This feature is part of the Hokie How-To roundup in Illumination 2019–2020.