Nova Scotia

Volunteer group donates adapted toys to stock IWK library

Store-bought toys can be inaccessible for children with disabilities. Adapted toys are expensive. A local group modifies them and donates them to people who need them.

'Not everyone can afford the commercial options, if they even exist'

Emily Goulet sits in front of the collection of switch-adapted modified toys. (David Laughlin/CBC)

A group of volunteers from across the Maritimes is on a mission to make toys that anyone can play with. 

Volunteers from a program called Makers Making Change recently modified more than 20 new toys to be accessible for children with disabilities and donated them to a toy library at the IWK Children's Hospital in Halifax. 

Many store-bought toys with small buttons and parts aren't easily accessible for preschoolers who have complex communication needs or physical disabilities, and modified toys can cost from $150 to $300. 

Emily Goulet, a speech language pathologist at the IWK who runs the library of accessible toys, said the 20 new toys will make a huge difference. 

"There's nothing I hate more than giving a toy to a family and saying, 'We'll need that back in two weeks.' So I'm really excited to be able to say, 'Here's a toy and you can keep it and it's yours,'" Goulet said.

Cost can be prohibitive

Goulet said many families can't afford to buy adapted toys for their children. She said if it comes down to a mobility device or a toy, parents must prioritize. 

"So being able to provide these toys free of charge to families is huge … We're so lucky to know Makers Making Change [because] they show people and train people how they can adapt toys."

A group of Neil Squire employees in New Brunswick held a team-building event where they modified toys. (Submitted by Courtney Cameron )

Makers Making Change is a program run by the Neil Squire Society, a national non-profit organization, that connects community-based makers, disability professionals and volunteers to create affordable assistive technologies.

"[Assistive technology] is really just technology that's going to help somebody overcome a barrier," said Courtney Cameron, the East Region co-ordinator for the program.

Cameron said the group usually focuses on assistive technology for adults, but it has started working on accessible toys since connecting with Goulet and her colleagues at the IWK.

The toys are modified to be compatible with something called a switch, which is essentially a button to turn things on and off. 

"If a child is having a hard time reaching a certain button on a toy, maybe it's their fine motor skills aren't able to grasp it, Cameron said. "It might be a reach issue. Then we're going to adapt it so that we can kind of move the button to where they need it.

"A really big part is letting the child play with something independently instead of needing somebody to press a button for them."

This sloth is one of the toys modified by Makers Making Change. A touch switch is shown in the foreground. (Submitted by Courtney Cameron)

Goulet said adults can use switches for complex processes like communicating with a tablet. This means it's important for children to learn about switches through play, so their skills can grow as they age. 

"You can really see when kids make that connection that they're having that power over the toy, that they're the ones making it sing and dance is really powerful for them."

'Anyone can do it'

The process of adapting the toys is simple, Cameron said. 

"We kind of open them up and we just make some additional wires and then we also drill some holes where we can basically plug in a switch or a button," she said.

Cameron said anyone can learn to do it and it takes about one hour per toy.

Kerilyn Kennedy is an engineering co-op student who worked on the toys. She said about 80 per cent of people with disabilities use assistive technology.

"Not everyone can afford the commercial options, if they even exist," Kennedy said. "So to be a part of an organization that's able to provide some of these open source and affordable options is great." 

Cameron said the group has plans to start adapting more toys and is always looking for more volunteers across the Maritimes. 

She said anyone who is interested can reach out on the organization's website.

Volunteer group donates adapted toys to stock IWK library

4 months ago
Duration 2:26
Store-bought toys can be inaccessible for children with disabilities. Adapted toys are expensive. A local group modifies them and donates them to people who need them.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nicola Seguin is a TV, radio, and online journalist with CBC Nova Scotia, based in Kjipuktuk (Halifax). If you have a story idea, email her at nicola.seguin@cbc.ca or find her on twitter @nicseg95.

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