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UNC-Chapel Hill students build adapted toys for kids with disabilities

Liz Schlemmer
First year UNC-Chapel Hill student Enakshi Chawla rewires a bubble machine at Carolina Adapts Toys For Children, a student club that modifies toys for children with disabilities.

Once a week, a group of college students host a busy toy workshop in a basement laboratory on UNC-Chapel Hill's campus. The students have been hard at work this past semester to adapt toys for children with disabilities in time for the holidays.

Around the room, students tinker on electronic dinosaurs, toy trucks, bubble machines and stuffed animals.

“It's just about creating this environment for kids to develop and grow and play with these toys... and to catch the kids who fall through the cracks of mainstream toy design,” said Darci Anderson, president of Carolina Adapts Toys for Children, or CATCH.

Anderson shows a toy the group has finished adapting, a stuffed animal that plays music. The plush dog now has a long cord attached with external buttons.

Liz Schlemmer
President of CATCH Darci Anderson holds up a stuffed animal the group has finished adapting. Students removed the buttons from the dog's paws and reconnected the buttons on a long cord for easier use.

If you bought this toy in a store, the buttons would be in the dog's paws, but children who struggle with fine motor skills might have trouble squeezing the paw. With the extension, a child can press the button flat on a table.

Trains and trucks that move across the floor can also be out of reach for some kids.

“If a kid was in a wheelchair, they could press the button and the toy would be able to move and they would still be able to interact with it, even if they can't physically sit on the floor and play with that toy,” Anderson explained.

At the end of every semester, CATCH donates the toys they’ve finished to local children’s hospitals and rehabilitation centers.

Affordable solutions to combat high cost of adaptive toys

Michael Weaver founded the group in 2019 after completing an internship at a similar project at Ohio State University when he was in high school.

Weaver was excited to bring the model to UNC-Chapel Hill because of his interest in engineering, and because he has cerebral palsy. He could relate to not always being able to access certain toys and video game controllers when he was a kid.

"If we're able to deliver, even to a small percentage of people, and make that part of their childhood easier and make their parents' life a little bit easier, that's really the whole goal," Weaver said.

Weaver and members of the original executive board of CATCH graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2021 and have since founded a national nonprofit to raise funds and support the work of the student group. Eventually, the nonprofit aims to start more student chapters at other colleges.

Weaver hopes the group can also offer workshops for families to come and learn to modify their own toys. The students at CATCH use their electrical skills to find affordable solutions to create toys that cost much less to make than the sticker price for adaptive toys sold online.

Student Ben Gutknecht works on modifying button consoles from board games to reuse on other toys. He was motivated to take on this project because his brother has a disability and Gutknecht says he was always bothered by how much adaptive technology costs families.

Liz Schlemmer
CATCH secretary Chris Nguyen, right, shows his friend Dairon Perez how to use a soldering iron. The student volunteers teach other basic electrical skills to modify toys.

“On the adaptive technologies websites, a button of about this size would probably be in the $80 to $100 range,” Gutknecht said. “By doing this $3 or $4 solution, that really cuts down on that cost.”

The student volunteers create their own instruction manuals and teach each other how to rewire buttons and circuit boards.

Chris Nguyen shows new volunteers how to solder together wires. Nguyen has been volunteering at CATCH for three years and at a recent work session he brought along his friend Dairon Perez.

“When you're here, and modifying toys, it feels like you're just hanging out with your friends, and while we're hanging out we happen to be doing good work for people as well,” Nguyen said.

“You're spreading them a little more joy during the holidays,” Perez said.

Over winter break, CATCH will donate 40 toys they finished adapting this semester to UNC Children's Hospital.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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