Courtesy of Kelly Chan ‘24

April 23, 2023

Big Red Adaptive Play and Design Re-Wires Toys for Accessibility

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The Big Red Adaptive Play and Design Initiative, a student-run assistive technology organization, aims to bridge the gap between Cornell students and the Ithaca special needs community by re-engineering toys, making devices more accessible for all. 

Founded by Big Red APDI President Michael Dicpinigaitis ’24 in 2021, the organization re-wires  battery-operated toys and devices to make them more accessible to individuals with physical disabilities. These technologies are donated to organizations to supply the need for adaptive play and assistive technology solutions.

“I originally came up with the idea for this initiative after seeing a video of how a student with a physical disability could play with a specially wired battery-operated toy by using a more accessible switch button to overcome his disability,” Dicpinigaitis said. “I found that these uniquely wired toys called ‘switch-adapted toys’ were commercially available but that they were super expensive to those who needed them most.” 

According to Dicpinigaitis, most battery-operated toys and devices can be re-wired for those with special needs. Big Red ADPI gathers these toys, examines their internal circuitry and reverse engineers them to make them switch-accessible. 

“Essentially, we are looking to connect an external switch to the toy to make it easier for children with motor disabilities to interact with them,” said Maya Yu ’24, vice president of Big Red APDI. “Such commercially available toys are typically prohibitively expensive — we want to mitigate this issue by donating and lending these toys out to the community.”

The organization receives funding from the Student Activities Funding Commission, the Community Partnership Funding Board, the Contribution Project and the Robinson-Appel Humanitarian Award to purchase most of the supplies for the toys. The College of Human Ecology’s Digital Design and Fabrication Studio allows Big Red APDI to use their assembly studio as an event space, as well as borrow materials for their toys.

“I brought this idea to Cornell after reaching out to some of the very programs that we now work with in Ithaca, [and] we found that there was a huge need for these adaptive play technologies,” Dicpinigaitis said. “With this need being present, we were able to create a student organization uniquely dedicated to fulfilling this need in Ithaca and plan to continue to expand much farther beyond.”

The club has grown to 100 members within two years of its founding and actively recruits throughout the year. Big Red APDI hosts biweekly events that anyone interested can attend.

At each meeting, students work in small groups to learn soldering, wire modification, accessibility and design with no experience required. 

According to Kelly Chan ’24, a member of the programming, outreach and event planning committee, the organization also hosts toy-adapting sessions beyond Cornell at Ithaca College, local organizations and elementary, middle and high schools in Ithaca. 

“We also have plans to directly design assistive technology solutions for people with physical disabilities with particular needs in the community,” Chan said. “[This may] include 3D-printed key-guards designed for communication devices, 3D printed switches designed for activating toys [or] devices and sensory boards designed to improve tactile awareness.” 

The club has lended their adaptive toys, devices and other technologies to various local organizations including the Ithaca City School District, Tompkins Seneca Tioga Bored of Cooperative Educational Services, Finger Lakes Independence Center, Ithaca Racker Center, Unity House of Cayuga County and The Great Southern Tier BOCES. They are also currently in the process of collaborating with Cornell Student Disability Services and the Union for Disability Awareness

“All children have the right to play,” Chan said. “Our work allows children in the local Ithaca community to have toys that are accessible to them. We work directly with speech therapists and occupational therapists to learn more about the role of assistive technologies as well.”

Yu noted the organization’s emphasis on inclusivity and public service. 

“Through working so closely with our community, we have been able to directly impact the lives of students in need — providing them with more independence in their [day-to-day] lives,” Yu said. “It’s been so rewarding seeing how our club’s efforts have impacted the lives of so many individuals in our community, and we’re so excited to see how the organization grows in the future.”