Workshop of wonders

An army of volunteers at Perkins' Assistive Device Center build a variety of kid-friendly devices to help children learn

By Karen Shih

A boy touches an item on a black board while his female teacher guides his hand.

Lower School student Ivan and occupational therapist Leslie Hill explore Ivan's new sensory board from the Assistive Device Center.

Ivan loves anything that buzzes when he touches it. There’s the initial excitement when he hears the noise – then utter delight as vibrations run up his arm. The moment it’s over, he furrows his brow in concentration, figuring out how to repeat the sensation.

From his wheelchair, it’s not always easy for Ivan, who is blind and has low muscle tone, to play with toys. Many toys require vision to distinguish between colors, or strength Ivan doesn’t have.

But what 11-year-old doesn’t want to play? His teachers and therapists love to see Ivan’s mischievous smile – so they were determined to put together his favorite sensory elements in one toy.

Luckily, Ivan is a student at Perkins School for the Blind, where the Assistive Device Center (ADC) has been creating custom-made, low-cost adaptive equipment for more than three decades.

“They are invaluable,” said occupational therapist Leslie Hill, who works with Ivan to increase his strength and improve his motor skills. “The people in the Assistive Device Center know what questions to ask because they work with kids with so many different abilities.”

It’s hard to find a student at Perkins who hasn’t benefitted from the center’s work. You might see a toddler learning to navigate hallways with a “pre-cane,” a training version of the white cane. Or a student from the Deafblind Program exploring tactile elements like beads and toys that hang from a sturdy frame. Or a Lower School student sitting upright and participating in class, thanks to a pink corner seat that supports her torso.

It takes a core team of staff members, led by occupational therapist Molly Campbell, and a small army of volunteers to produce more than 1,000 devices annually that help students who are blind or visually impaired, including many with other disabilities, learn and live more independently.

“A lot of students’ educational potential can be enhanced by environmental supports,” said Campbell. “We’re here to help develop those supports.”

A woman uses a glue gun on cardboard.

Assistive Device Center Coordinator Molly Campbell, who has led the center since 1998, uses a glue gun on one of her many cardboard-based projects.

From garage to greenhouse

Like so many great ideas, the Assistive Device Center started with a problem.

Alex Truesdell, a teacher at Perkins, was inspired by a student in the Infant-Toddler Program and her aunt, both of whom had disabilities that made it impossible for them to do everyday tasks without help.

“I had never heard of adaptive technology, but suddenly found myself waking up in the middle of the night fixing things,” Truesdell wrote in the book “Creative Constructions.” “I rolled towels into bolsters, carved notches into toys and threaded straps through seat backs.”

Motivated by the difference she was able to make for her student and aunt, Truesdell attended classes on cardboard carpentry – and then convinced Perkins to establish the Assistive Device Center in 1987.

The center began in a drafty garage operated by the Perkins facilities department, but eventually moved to a former greenhouse space in the Howe Building. Truesdell left in 1998 to create the Adaptive Design Association in New York, and Campbell took over as coordinator.

Today, Campbell runs the center with help from staff members Tim Moore, an electro-mechanical engineer, and Andrea Tavares, an occupational therapist. She also has more than 30 volunteers who come in regularly, helping with woodworking, sewing, painting and more.

“It makes me feel really good to help out here,” said David Morrison, an eight-year volunteer. “I’m legally blind myself and I get services from Perkins Library. This was a nice way to give back.”

The ADC team prides itself not only on the quality of their work, but also the color and artistry they put into objects like adapted booster seats, desks, book holders and activity centers.

“We try to make things colorful and bright and fun so the ‘kid-ness’ comes out in the furniture rather than the disability,” said Campbell.

I want him to reach out and explore. Having something that motivates him and can be educational and functional at the same time is so helpful.

–Perkins teacher Donna Benites

A board for exploration

It’s just the second time Ivan is playing with his new sensory board, so its contents are still a bit unfamiliar.

He brushes his fingers across its surface, stopping to investigate each new item. When he pauses, unsure of where to go next, Hill guides his hand.

The five colorful elements of the sensory board stand out against the black wooden backdrop. There are two rows: Across the top, there’s a purple ball that spins and a hotel call bell. Across the bottom, there’s a rectangle of yellow plastic that vibrates, a button and a door handle. The board is angled slightly away from Ivan to encourage him to extend his arms.

“I want him to reach out and explore,” said his teacher, Donna Benites. “Having something that motivates him and can be educational and functional at the same time is so helpful.”

The idea for the sensory board came from Benites and Hill, who saw how Ivan enjoyed playing with an interactive board that was created for a different student. But because Ivan didn’t quite have the strength or muscle tone to access some of the items, he would get frustrated.

They turned to the ADC. While teachers and therapists sometimes know exactly what they want and can give precise instructions to the ADC, Hill wasn’t quite sure what she needed. She invited occupational therapy intern Rachelle Dickinson to observe Ivan and come up with some ideas.

A young woman and a man use an electric drill to combine two pieces of wood.

In the Assistive Device Center, occupational therapy intern Rachelle Dickinson and electro-mechanical engineer Tim Moore work collaboratively to create a sensory board for Lower School student Ivan.

Creative construction

Hill and Dickinson decided to replace some of the items from the other board and make sure everything was properly sized for Ivan. A round doorknob was hard for him to grasp, so they changed it to a handle. A button at the end of a tube was out of reach, so they measured Ivan’s finger to get the right fit.

Dickinson took their notes back to the center’s workspace to begin construction. The ADC uses a variety of materials, from three-layered cardboard, which is strong and light, to wood, which is more durable. They also use plastic, foam and simple electronics to create seat wedges, bowl stabilizers and switches to operate toys or computers.

For Ivan’s sensory board, Moore and Dickinson went through a trial-and-error process to determine the best layout and methods to attach different elements.

Moore guided her as Dickinson measured and marked the board, then drilled in the piece of plastic that vibrates when pressed. He ground down the bolt for the doorknob so it would fit properly. It took them two weeks to finish the project.

Once complete, Ivan’s sensory board joined the colorful assortment of chairs, display boards and more outside the ADC office, ready to be picked up or delivered. About half of those items go to students on campus, while the others go to public school students who receive services from Perkins Community Programs.

Ivan uses his new board in class and during occupational therapy. It engages his senses, encourages physical activity and helps him develop fine motor skills. Best of all, it’s fun.

“He loves it,” said Benites. “Especially the vibrating one – he laughs and laughs.”

Campbell is happy to hear that, though she and the team don’t have much time to bask in their success.

Back in the workshop, they’ve got safety goggles on, ready to saw and solder and glue to create the next item in the queue, an adapted seat and play table.

“I like thinking about solutions for people,” said Campbell. “The best part is when you see a kid who’s sitting up and paying attention because we’ve gotten their new chair right – and Mom is just thrilled.”