DU club design suitable toys for children with disabilities


Luke Schrum | Staff Writer

The importance of playing with toys as a kid cannot be understated. Childhood experiences often give children the opportunity to realize their future potential, but not all children have the same capabilities. Though everyone is unique, mass market toys do not always reflect it. Many don’t have features that are supportive of children with disabilities.

Students have realized the need for inclusive, easily available toys and are taking action to create them. Start PLAY – Hackers, a Duquesne club, has started improving toys to make them available to children with disabilities according to club president Nicole Lucente.

“The goal of Start PLAY – Hackers is to adapt, fix or create toys that children with impairments can play with,” Lucente said.

While toys are available that already have modifications, most are prohibitively expensive and not durable enough for long-term use.

“The toys that are suitable for [children with impairments] are extremely overpriced and break easily,” Lucente said.

To overcome challenges that families face to find suitable toys for their children, the club modifies toys in specific ways based on need.

“Toys that require a child to press down hard to activate it can often be difficult for a child who doesn’t have great muscle strength. PLAY – Hackers re-configure the toy to put a more sensitive button on it so the child can play, despite their limitations,” Lucente said.

Projects the PLAY – Hackers work on are designed and configured based on needs expressed to the club through Regina Harbourne, an advisor to the club and assistant professor in the Rangos School of Health Sciences.

“The toys we complete are given to children as we become aware of need. If [Harbourne] is working with a child who could benefit from one of our toys, she will give them one,” Lucente said. “I have also brought toys to my nursing facility for medically complex children in Massachusetts, and we also give toys to local schools like the Western PA School for the Blind.”

Each toy project is unique in both its goals and the length of time it takes to complete. While some toys are small and simple enough to complete in one meeting, others take significantly longer.

“We have larger projects that can take up to a whole year. The project I have been working on is an adaptive car for a young boy,” Lucente said.

PLAY – Hackers have the ability to experience new opportunities related to their major or minor areas of study through the club while also volunteering their time. Sophomore occupational therapy major Olivia Shope is helping to make a difference through her work while the club is also shaping her time at Duquesne.

“Start PLAY – Hackers played a role in deciding my second minor. The assistive technology minor is relatively new, and this club goes along with it very well,” Shope said.

While the technologies used by students to modify toys can be intimidating, prior experience with them are not required to join.

“I’m someone who has never been very adept with electronics or engineering, but Play – Hackers allows for a really nice learning environment to get accustomed to it. Even if you’re a person who has little interest in the technology part of it, it’s a nice way to make a difference by helping to adapt or fix toys for children with disabilities,” Shope said.

The PLAY – Hackers recently participated in an event to display their projects to a large audience. The event was one of many they attend to display their work to audiences of varying ages.

“We recently participated in Winter Hack, which is a fair for ‘hackers’ to showcase their work. PLAY – Hackers also visit local schools and programs to teach school-aged kids how to make some of our projects, as well as teach them about some of the science behind how they work,” Lucente said.

New students are always welcome to join the club if they wish to get involved with the cause.

“Students can join our roster on CampusLink to be added to our email list. We meet every other Wednesday in Libermann Hall at 4 p.m. Students can reach out to me or any of the advisors to find out when our next meeting is. Our doors are always open,” Lucente said.