The Big Red Adaptive Play and Design Initiative trains Cornell students to adapt toys and devices for children with disabilities.

Student group adapts toys, devices for kids with disabilities

Due to an extremely rare chromosomal abnormality, 17-year-old Noah Cervantes has compromised mobility, vision and hearing that make it difficult to maneuver in his environment, including using traditional toys and devices that might bring him a sense of independence and joy.

In 2021, Noah’s mother, Danielle Jackson of Ithaca, found adapted toys online, where the toys’ buttons had been replaced with larger external switches, but they cost more than $100 each. She searched for a local organization that could rewire toys for her – and then made a connection, with Michael Dicpinigaitis ’24, that would improve her son’s life, along with the lives of many other children with disabilities in the region.

The Big Red Adaptive Play and Design Initiative has enlisted students from all backgrounds to create a large lending library of adapted toys that serves nine local schools and organizations and counting.

Dicpinigaitis had just founded a new student organization, the Big Red Adaptive Play and Design Initiative (APDI), which trained Cornell students from any discipline to adapt toys and other devices for children with disabilities.

At that point, the group was small, with just a few students social distancing as they rewired the toys. But since 2021, with the help of community partners including Jackson, the group and its impact have grown; more than 100 student volunteers have helped develop a large lending library of toys used by nine self-contained schools, rehabilitation centers and other organizations dedicated to serving people with disabilities. They’ve also worked with school occupational therapists and speech therapists to design and create assistive technologies, and taught kids in area elementary, middle and high schools the importance of inclusive play, the science behind toy circuits and even how to adapt toys themselves.

“It’s amazing to have a group of people who are so invested in your kid not only succeeding and gaining independence, but also just being able to enjoy life,” Jackson said. “You don’t realize what kids are missing out on when they don’t have access to play, when they don’t have access to the tools to do the little things, to zip their own jacket, or open their lunchbox. This group has made a really active effort to bring everyone together to help kids who need it, and they’re always asking what else our kids are struggling with, what else do we need.”

Dicpinigaitis, now the president emeritus of APDI, was honored with the 2023 Robinson-Appel Humanitarian Award from the Einhorn Center for Community Engagement, and the group was awarded a 2023 Cornell Town-Gown Award from the university – for work that has engaged and united partners across the region, from the Ithaca City School District, to Tompkins-Seneca-Tioga Board of Cooperative Educational Services (TST-BOCES), the Finger Lakes Independence Center, Racker, the New York State School for the Blind and many more.

On March 24, APDI joined forces with Ithaca College’s occupational therapy and physical therapy departments to tailor motorized toy cars to the abilities of four kids with mobility difficulties – reflecting a shift in the group’s evolution, from adapting toys and devices for general play and everyday use toward working directly with kids to tailor solutions to their individual needs. 

“We went from having a tiny skill of rewiring these access points to creating assistive technologies that are not only aimed at inclusive play for kids but for helping people with their daily lives,” said current APDI president Patrick Evuleocha ‘26, a computer science major in the Cornell Ann. S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science and Cornell Engineering. “It’s pretty revolutionary how far we’ve come – and it’s a situation where one person with a passion, one person willing to put in one extra hour can lead to influencing so many more people.”

‘Thinking of kids like my kid’

Dicpinigaitis, a biological sciences major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, began adapting toys in high school after seeing a video of a child with cerebral palsy playing independently with an adapted toy. Without the use of his hands, the child was able to hit an external button with his head to make the toy dance and play music.

Dicpinigaitis taught himself how to rewire toys based on resources online and founded an organization to provide adaptive toys to his community on Long Island, with such success he wanted to continue the work at Cornell.

Students use a soldering iron to rewire a toy at one of many toy adapting sessions organized by the Big Red Adaptive Play and Design Initiative.

“Coming to Cornell, I knew I wanted to use my experience and work with students across different disciplines to make a student organization dedicated to a type of service that had not been explored at the university before,” Dicpinigaitis said. “I really wanted to impact the community.”

For kids with disabilities, the adapted toys are more than just toys – they’re a step towards inclusion. Jackson said the toys allowed her son and his siblings to truly play together for the first time.

“Before, somebody would have to sit with him and do hand over hand, which is not the same as spontaneous, independent play,” Jackson said. “Now, his siblings could use the buttons, too, and it made them feel like they were all doing the same thing.”

Kelly Clark, an occupational therapist at TST-BOCES, said she’s seen the toys and other assistive technologies increase equity and inclusion schoolwide.

“We don’t just have kids with disabilities at our school, we have everybody in the same building, and we want to make sure our kids with disabilities have access to everything the rest of the kids do,” said Clark, who visits the APDI toy library every couple of months to swap in new toys for her students. “And it’s been really powerful for some of our typical peers to see that our kids can participate in these activities.”

In addition to toys, APDI has designed and 3D-printed plastic grids and guards that make it easier for students with speech and motor difficulties to utilize communication devices like iPads. They have also created aids that help children zip their coats, draw and eat independently.

For Hailey Merrick of Binghamton, whose 3-year-old son River has spastic diplegia cerebral palsy, the community that’s formed around APDI shows that her child is valued.

“It means that people and communities and colleges are thinking of kids like my kid,” Merrick said. “For kids with disabilities to be thought of, to be recognized, it’s all I want. They don’t get enough recognition, enough support, they don’t get enough of anything. And for people to be doing things for them, it means the most, and it makes me so happy.”

Doing ‘anything and everything possible’

Merrick's son River was one of four children with varying mobility challenges who participated in the March 24 event at Ithaca College, called GoBabyGo. Ranging in age from 14 months to 5, three of the kids spent the day on-site while Cornell and Ithaca College students adapted the cars exactly to the kids’ bodies and abilities, a process that the families said was essential.

“Every kid with a disability is so different when it comes to their tone, which way they lean, what hand they use,” Merrick said. “An adaptive toy really has to be tailored to them because what one person’s kid may need might not fit what my kid may need.”

More than 20 Cornell students rewired ignition switches to more accessible buttons, replaced steering wheels with joysticks and added supports to stabilize the kids in the cars’ seats. According to Evuleocha, the more complicated, tailored engineering is exactly the direction the group is heading.

14-month-old Silas Hultberg test-drives his adapted toy car at the GoBabyGo event at Ithaca College on March 24.

“I want us to be able to do anything and everything possible,” Evuleocha said. “I want someone to come to us already expecting a solution, and I want us to never turn down projects. Because to these people in the community, there are not that many outlets that they can use.”

Currently, the group is working with Clark on a device that could help kids with disabilities at TST-BOCES lift recycling bins; they’re working with a neurodivergent Cornell student to develop a smartwatch that will alert her to heightened anxiety. On April 26-28, they’re hosting a hackathon that invites the Cornell community to brainstorm and present solutions to inclusion challenges. Participants will troubleshoot RCareWorld Simulation software, created by APDI faculty adviser and Assistant Professor of Computer Science (Bowers CIS) Tapomayukh Bhattacharjee’s lab, that will help define and refine the role robots can play in caregiving for those with disabilities.

APDI has also applied to become an official project team for Cornell Engineering, a move that reflects the growing sophistication of their goals and ensures the sustainability of the group and mission.

“One of the biggest rewards is seeing the growth and excitement of something so new and understanding it is so appreciated in the community,” Dicpinigaitis said. “And the passion and leadership continue to blossom. I can’t wait to see what this group accomplishes and where it is headed.”

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Abby Kozlowski