Local Organization Adapts Toys for Kids with Disabilities

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By Elizabeth Miller 

Buying toys for kids with disabilities can be expensive.  A popular talking ‘Peppa Pig’ that costs 25 bucks at the toy store can cost more than 3 times that for what’s called an “adapted toy.”  These toys have a universal plug that – along with a special switch – can cater to a child’s disability.

There’s the tilt switch, where a child with muscular dystrophy, for example, could tilt his head to make a toy work.  There’s the sip and puff switch that only takes a breath for a child with a spinal cord injury to activate.  There’s also the large plate switch consisting of a big button that a child who has problems with fine motor skills can easily hit

Therapists who help kids with disabilities have a supply of different switches that plug into specially adapted toys and make them go.  But buying those toys is expensive.  That’s where Bill Memberg comes in.

In 1989 he saw an ad in the paper from the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities looking for someone to fix a box of broken toys. 

"Since I like to tinker with things and repair things that sounded like fun to me," says Memberg.

Recently graduated from Case Western Reserve University with a Masters in Engineering, he had some free time. 

"I got the box, brought it back a month later with the ones I was able to fix, and they gave me a second box of things to fix," says Memberg. 

Memberg created the non-profit, Replay for Kids.  The group receives new and gently used donated toys and holds volunteer workshops throughout the year where just about anyone can learn to help adapt them – from engineers to high school students to accountants.  They mean anyone.

"It was a plush dinosaur, and I think they gave me the most simple one because I’m not an engineer," said Paul Pawlaczyk.

Pawlaczyk is the Director of Communications for Cleveland State University’s Washkewicz College of Engineering.  Every year for more than a decade, CSU engineering alums gather for a toy modification workshop.  Recently, some forty volunteers showed up at CSU’s Fenn Hall to help.  Pawlaczyk has been coming for a couple of years now.

"I’m an engineer for a day," says Pawlaczyk.

"So, if I can repair a toy or adapt a toy, anyone can do it."

It takes about 10 to 30 minutes to adapt a toy, depending on the volunteer. 

So, how do regular toys get adapted? First, open it up.  Find the mechanism that activates the toy.  Then, solder a couple of wires over a cable.  At the end of the soldered cable, there’s an outlet for a universal plug. 

Natalie Wordega is the Director of Operations for Replay.  She’s seen the number of volunteer workshops rise significantly in the 9 years she’s been with the organization as demand for the toys and interest in adapting them has increased.

Wordega says that when she started the organization held about 1 workshop a month.

"Now, we’re up to about 3 or 4 a week."

At its annual toy distribution event this month, the group gave away more than thirteen-hundred adapted toys, the most it’s ever distributed.

"What’s great is not only then they have the ability to play with the toy, but they’re also learning cause and effect," Wordega says.

"So, if they can hit a switch & activate the toy, make the bear sing happy birthday, then they can hit a switch and power their wheelchair or turn on the lights."

The Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities no longer places ads in the paper for amateur engineers.  It’s now one of 20 agencies in Northeast Ohio that partner with Replay for Kids to provide therapists and kids with toys that meet each child’s ability. 

More about Replay for Kids on Ideas.


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