Westlake robotics students adapt toys for kids with disabilities

·3 min read

No matter how much it might annoy parents, a lot of children’s toys make noise. Press a button on the hand of a stuffed bear, it introduces itself. Shake an action figure from a favorite movie, it says a catch phrase.

However, those toys can be hard for kids with disabilities to maneuver and the students in the Westlake High School robotics program are working on a fix.

“A lot of times kids with disabilities have trouble being able to find and push those buttons,” said Anisha Sheth, a senior at Westlake. “What we do is we go in and we rewire the toy so that instead of the button being inside, it’s an external button. ... And it's much easier for kids with physical disabilities to be able to find the buttons and be able to push them and have the same experience.”

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The revamped toys are a form of assistive technology, a term that encompasses products that enhance learning, working and daily living for people with disabilities.

Sheth and her fellow robotics students overwrite the original layout for the electrical circuits in the toys. The result is assistive toys that are donated to the Eanes special education program and local families. Purchasing toys that are manufactured with adaptive tech for kids with disabilities can be very expensive, and Westlake junior Alina Tang said the adapted toys have been a great addition to special education classrooms.

“The teachers were happy because I don't think they find a lot of toys that are assistive technology friendly, or cheap enough for every kid to have,” Tang said. “The kids, they might take some time to get used to the toy and realize that the button is what makes the noise when you press it. I think they really enjoyed it.”

Adi McKaskle, left, and Alina Tang present an assistive technology toy to Charlotte Leahy at Bridge Point Elementary School. The Westlake High robotics team has been revamping toys to make them more accessible for students with disabilities.
Adi McKaskle, left, and Alina Tang present an assistive technology toy to Charlotte Leahy at Bridge Point Elementary School. The Westlake High robotics team has been revamping toys to make them more accessible for students with disabilities.

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Westlake senior Adi McKaskle said this is a passion project for her because she knows firsthand how important having the right technology can be to a person with a disability.

“My physical disability doesn't impact a specific area of learning but being an outsider, especially in fundamental learning and building block things, has had a very large impact on me and my life,” she said. “Being able to add normalcy to someone's life is really impactful.”

Sheth said the assistive technology program fits well with the robotics team’s goals of promoting accessibility and inclusion.

“Our program as a whole really values the role that we have in making things more accessible for people,” she said. “A lot of our initiatives focus on many different types of people and leveling the playing field for everyone, and I think this is a really great demonstration of that.”

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McKaskle said the assistive tech robotics team also has been working on a few special orders for families in the district. The team has modified about 10 toys in the two years since the program started and the students hope to expand within and beyond Eanes.

The goal is to get more robotics students involved, and Tang said the group is working on producing videos and manuals online to help robotics teams in other districts replicate the toy modifications that have worked in Westlake.

McKaskle said she would love to have Westlake students produce their own unique toy someday — maybe a chaparral — rather than modify existing products.

“Assistive technology is very necessary,” she said. “(I want to) get that message out there. Assistive technology has a much bigger, much more helpful impact on life than I think some people realize.”

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Westlake robotics students adapt toys for kids with disabilities