Another Kind of Santa’s Workshop

The South Carolina AT Program is getting ready to bring smiles to families and children with disabilities, one switch-adapted toy at a time!

A little girl holding an adapted toy animal presses a CD switch to activate it while her mother looks on smiling.
Attendees of last year’s Adapted Toy Workshop test their creation.

After last year’s adventure holding their first-ever Adapted Toy Workshop, South Carolina’s Assistive Technology Program (SCATP) knew this would turn into an annual event. The AT Program recruited families and high school students to spend two days adapting battery-powered toys to be accessible for children with disabilities. But then the Occupational Therapy (OT) department at Lenoir Rhyne University heard about it and wanted in on the action, so SCATP added another day. And when the statewide support network, Family Connection, heard what they’d missed, SCATP added yet another day.

When all was said and done, four days were spent dedicated to hacking toys and ensuring a satisfying holiday for more children and families.

These holiday hack-a-thons have been cropping up around the country for several years now and it’s easy to see why. There’s something deeply satisfying about toy adapting.

A young woman solders at a workbench.

First, there’s the obvious gratification that comes from filling a need. Young children with motor impairments and other disabilities are often successful with alternative ways to operate battery-powered toys. Pinching a plush animal’s hand to hear a jingle may not be available to them, but striking a large plastic “switch” may be just the ticket. Switches bring toys to life and delight their users; for some, they may also teach “cause and effect” and lead to a lifetime of computer access and communication.

Second is the satisfaction of the hacker. Isn’t it natural to want to pull those wired toys apart to see how they work?  (I well remember tugging the plush suit off a toy’s plastic mold, exploring its inner mysteries.)

Third, is the satisfaction of taking an affordable toy, adapting it for its user, yet keeping it affordable. Switch accessible toys exist in the marketplace, but they can triple a toy’s price tag.

SCATP’s mission, like all state AT programs, is to get more AT to the families, adults, children, and seniors who can benefit. Toy adapting is a natural fit.

“We provide the event for free and we fund all the materials,” emphasizes SCATP Director Carol Page, Ph.D.

Last year, SCATP organized a collaboration between a high school and the AT program staff to create toys with battery interrupters. Hackers created and installed battery interrupters that a switch can plug into to make a battery-powered toy turn on or off. The 2-day event animated lessons in electrical circuitry for a valuable purpose and introduced students to the field of assistive technology.

Four young women working at a workbench with soldering irons and plush toys smile for the camera.
Students adapting toys in 2018.

Hackers also learned to build inexpensive switches made from repurposed CDs. Page explains that when she discovered last year that some attendees did not already have switches for use with their children, she added switch making from old software trial CDs to the workshop.  “We’ve offered a ‘Trash to AT Treasures’ maker day for years,” she observes, “so it grew out of that. This way everyone can come away with a working toy for their child.”

This year, SCATP is reorganizing its workshop for efficiency and to better meet the enthusiasm of OT students and families statewide. A day of training will take place on November 15th with OT students from Lenoir Rhyne University. Students will bring toys to adapt for donation to families who can use them. These same students will return to help staff a public Adapted Toy Workshop planned for December 4th, ensuring success for more families and a deeper experience for their learning and training as therapists.

Page is looking forward to it. “OT students appreciate learning these skills, and gain confidence that they’ll be able to adapt toys for clients for years to come. Families appreciate the opportunity to fill a child’s holiday wish.”

Six young adults standing smiling and holding up their switch adapted toys with CD switches.
OT students from Lenoir Rhyne University show off their switch-adapted creations.

Do you know a child who’d enjoy a switch adapted toy this holiday season? If you don’t live near Columbia South Carolina, consider applying online to receive a toy from the Colorado-based Santa’s Little Hackers. Santa’s Little Hackers trains and organizes holiday hack-a-thons annually and ships switch-adapted toys to eligible children around the country and even internationally. They are accepting applicants to receive free switch-adapted toys until November 15th.

If you do live in South Carolina, learn more about the Adapted Toy Workshop scheduled for December 4th, 2019 at the AT Resource Center located at 8301 Farrow Road in Columbia. Call 803-935-5263.

If you’d like to adapt a toy yourself and can’t get to SCATP, stay tuned for our next post packed with toy adapting resources!