Michelle Macklem: You’re listening to ADAPTIVE and I’m Michelle Macklem.

Adaptive is a series about how humans interact with technology. Why do we assume that it’s easier than ever for everyone to get around because of technology? This series explores that how people with different and diverse abilities use tools and technology to adapt to the environment around them.

In this episode, we explore do-it-yourself or DIY technologies and the objects we use everyday that we may not consider to be technologies but they can be adapted to accommodate people with different abilities.

Owen Chapman: I understand technology almost exceedingly broadly, almost maybe too broadly. A chair, eyeglasses, shoelaces you know a hairbrush, really quote unquote mundane domestic objects I consider to be technology.

MM: This is Owen Chapman; he’s a professor in Communication Studies at Concordia University in Montreal.

OC: Prior to having these things we would have had a whole different series of practices to accomplish kind of basic daily activities. And the arrival of simple seemingly unsophisticated objects or apparatuses or tools or again ways of thinking and doing things with simple objects or apparatuses or tools.

MM: These approaches to thinking and doing things with simple objects or tools have been taken up by disability organizations. These organizations value customizable or adaptable approaches to accessing spaces like classrooms and public transit.


MM: The Adaptive Design Association is one of many disability-focused organizations that helps people learn how to make custom low tech or DIY adaptations. These adaptations range from making custom stools that encourage strong core posture to seat inserts for children that provide extra stability. And the fascinating thing about these adaptations is that they’re mostly made out of cardboard.

MM: The Adaptive Design Association is just off a busy street close to Time Square in New York.

Inside there’s stuff made out of cardboard everywhere – from recycling bins, filing cabinets, tables to even a chandelier!


Upstairs – where I spent most of my time – is the workshop space

Alex Truesdell: People see it as your box from amazon arrives and you get rid of the box. We depend on it but we again we don’t appreciate it. A marginalized building material with a marginalized population is fascinating.

MM: This is Alex Truesdell. She’s the founder and executive director at the Adaptive Design Association. In the fall of 2015 Alex was the recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Genius Grant for her work with the Adaptive Design Association. Alex believes we can use cardboard constructions like the ones found at the Adaptive Design Association as a jumping off point into discussing larger inequalities surrounding disability.

AT: People here can come for just a matter of a couple hours visit and start making something and have a completely transformed sense of both – the material and why were using that material and who benefits from the adaptation we make.

MM: Alex’s ultimate goal is to have adaptive design associations become a reality everywhere, and around the workshop she stimulates conversation among curious new comers and regulars about the concept of adaptive design.

[AMBIANCE workshop]

Shira Gordon: I’m Shira Gordon. I’m the mother of a 15 year old with multiple disabilities. He is in a wheelchair, he doesn’t see, he doesn’t walk, he doesn’t talk, but he loves music, he loves birds, listening to birds – and going for walks outside.

I needed a stepstool for my son recently and I couldn’t find what I needed. I was looking online and I was not sure exactly the measurement I needed, but once I heard about this place from a colleague, and I came and I saw and it was amazing! And I realized that I could’ve made what my son needed exactly if I had learned the skills of measuring and making it out of cardboard, it would’ve given me a custom design for my son. I love making stuff out of everyday materials. So for me it’s so cool to learn how to use old grocery bags and cardboard and things – everyday items make them into really, functional items.

Susan Fridie: I’m Susan Fridie and I’m an occupational therapist working at the Adaptive Design Association. Low tech is cheaper, it’s usually less complicated so its less likely to break or fail or not work. It’s often less conspicuous it attracts less attention which is often important. If it does get lost or broken or whatever its usually easier to repair or replace than high tech kinds of stuff. There’s usually a much lower learning curve.

If you have a fancy high tech communication device and its 2 o’clock in the morning and all your kid wants is a glass of water you don’t want to have to bring the thing out, turn it on, wait for it to boot up, put the switch in the right spot so the kid can scan to the thing that says ‘I want a glass of water’. Instead what you have is a little board that has 3 or 4 phrases for things that you likely to want in the middle of the night. The kid points or you point to which one and they say ‘yes’ to what he wants and he gets his drink of water a lot faster and you get back to bed a lot faster.

AT: The adaptation is a safe subject. That we can use just cardboard to enhance this workstation or this art project so a child could maybe be able to have a special tray for their wheelchair for instance. But the conversation really is why wouldn’t we have and expect that child to be an artist? And if a few adaptations could transcend that thought from ‘can’t’ to ‘can’ and can differently and can beautifully then we need to have that happen. And using cardboard you’re able to – with almost no expense in tools and materials – make something that is a priceless difference. And can do it very quickly.

It could be an addition to your classroom chair or a way that you might hold an instrument to play guitar, there could be an adaptation that fits you specifically that we’re concerned about the custom fit, not the commercially made in particular or in addition to an commercially made item.

MM: Here’s Owen again:

OC: It’s sort of a bottom up re-appropriation or remixing of everyday life to make it more accessible just by the small tweaks we can apply. And I think that again, that philosophy really resonated with some of the things I was thinking about technology and trying to empower people to break things open and see how they work and try to understand how they can intervene and contribute as well. And the Adaptive Design Association is a shining example of that kind of can do-ism.

MM: And yet Alex acknowledges that disability is still a difficult subject for people to think and talk about.

AT: It’s the saddest story of human discomfort with difference. And that we know were uncomfortable with social differences, racial differences, religious differences, but I think our biggest fear is actually disability. That we don’t want to that different. We don’t want to be seen as weird or damaged or unable. That terrifies us to be thought of as less-than. And I think that the whole ism around disability is because there’s a common prejudice and an assumption that some people are less able and less qualified and going to be less successful. So it’s an outrageous level of neglect.


MM: Owen worked with the adaptive design association to come up with the part of a research project called the Audio Toybox – which is focused on making sound based custom toys for children. These toys make sounds when they are played with so children can work on things like talking and listening.

OC: We have 4 kids who range from age 12 to 5 and our youngest daughter Ella Louise has an intellectual disability or cognitive disability or special needs or whatever you want to term it. And that’s a journey that we started on as a couple and as a family about 5 years ago when she was born. She’s really been inspirational to the orientation of the Audio Toybox project, which has really become my way into these broader considerations around disability studies, around critical disability studies and around that place of that field.

For the Audio Toybox project we had a small circuit that we had put together that we were starting to tweak to create the types of interactions we were looking for and a big question for us was, ‘how do we house the circuit in a design which is accessible, affordable, customizable and safe’ for children to work with and use. And so I was looking online for different options and I ended up falling on the adaptive design association website and seeing all the incredible things they do with cardboard construction.

As a parent of a child with special needs who can be using these kind of adaptations I think that was my most profound relationship to the place, was feeling like I was making something for my own daughter. I was thinking about her and her own needs. And so a big part of my way in was thinking about my own personal situation.

[Ella talking in background]

MM: Do you want to come over here and introduce yourself Ella?

This is Owen’s daughter Ella Louise Chapman. One of the cutest blonde curly haired five year olds I’ve met. She’s a cheery kid with a huge grin and a lot of energy… mischievous energy some of the time, particularly when I was trying to get her to introduce herself.

[ella: oh dearrr]

[owen: can you say mama?]


[ella: noooo!]

[owen: no]

[owen: can you say ella]

[ella: noooo!]


[AMBY Ella talking]

OC: In Ella’s situation she was born without us having any idea that she had any different and then at about 3 months after consultation with our family doctor, it was pointed out to us that yeah, there seems to be some differences here in terms of how Ella is developing. We don’t know the reasons for these differences yet. And we’re working on that. In the meantime there’s a variety of different types of therapy that we can get Ella started with that will help her development while we try to figure out what’s going on.

OC: In Ella’s case she was semi-diagnosed with Global Developmental Delay and started participating in some therapy programs at a place here in Montreal called MAB-Mackay, MAB Montreal Association for the Blind and Mackey Rehab Centre. It was in the context of those interactions that I realized that so much of therapy of children of that age is based in play.

MM: But Owen felt that there wasn’t that same sense of customization he had learned at the Adaptive Design Association going into the toys being used for Ella’s therapy.

OC: And the way that is instigated is by bringing out an assortment of toys. All of the toys that were bring brought out for Ella to play with were the same kind of things that you’d find at you know walmart or fisher-price toys or whatever. And 95% of them were silent and those that did have sound it was pretty poor, you know the usual stuff you associate with crappy plastic kids toys. And I thought to myself, at one point, I had this kind of eureka moment where I was like, ‘we’re doing all this work on fine motor and gross motor but especially language and communication.’ I thought this was a potential intervention because on my horizon were these DIY maker, artist technologies, especially arduino.

MM: If you don’t know what an arduino is don’t worry, you’re not alone.

[FX: small circuit]

It’s a small circuit, like a tiny computer that you can program to do very simple tasks – like make a little lightbulb flash or in this case trigger sounds.The current phase of Owen’s project is the Alphabet Radio.

OC: Almost anybody with a minimum of, of training or being shown how it works can change the types of feedback that the toy will give. It can be built into any size of cardboard constructed shape.

MM: The alphabet radio uses an arduino and its contained in a custom cardbox box like those found at the adaptive design association and it looks like a radio. It uses Rfid cards, like the ones used on tags at clothing stores or to open your door at work. The Alphabet radio toy makes sounds when these rfid cards are scanned on top of the arduino.

[AMBIANCE of cat, cow, bus etc.]

For Ella, it helps her with learning how to speak and associate sounds with specific words and pictures.

OC: So one example would be like the same card with a picture of a dog on it could produce a sound of the dog barking ‘WOOF WOOF’, it could produce the word ‘DOG’, it could produce the sound ‘DA DA DAH’ just for the “d”. It could cause a light to go off if the child is hard of hearing and what you need a different type of response.


MM: Okay we’re turning on the toy

OC: Here Ella, if you put that down you can try it with one of the cards here, oh there you go.

MM: Ella is sliding the card over the toy.

[card is dropped]

OC: Oh, try again!

[Ella: laughs]

[Alphabet radio: cow]

Ella: cow

MM: You got it!

OC: Why don’t you try that one.

Push your hand there.

[Ella pushing card]

[Alphabet radio: cat]

OC: push it to the middle here

Ella: cat

[Alphabet radio: cat]


OC: A lot of it to me comes back to this notion of adaptation. And from what I’ve come to learn, there’s varying ways to consider how adaptation as an idea plays into these parameters around improving the world such that people with disabilities can participate in a really full and rich way.

[Ella pushing card on top of alphabet radio]

[Alphabet radio: bus]

[Ella: inaudible talking]

[Alphabet radio: bus]

[Ella: inaudible talking]




OC: When you think about adapting something so that its more accessible that automatically sounds like highly positive. But one could imagine a situation in which a space or like an institute or job has been adapted in so many ways that the initial problem which was that that space was just not conducive to be navigated in a wheelchair. That that space was designed from the get-go as problematic that maybe gets sidelined when you’re busy trying to make small adjustments small adjustments small adjustments to correct things. And at the adaptive design association that is their most profound mandate, is to work on those custom adaptations. And they’ve seen incredible good come from it. And I can feel that when I’m there and can see it in the pictures and everything they provide.


OC: And yet, I can acknowledge that sometimes the question, the fundamental question needs to be asked which is that is this space is this way of designing and thinking about space problematic from the get go. Are there considerations that should have come into the initial moments of design, which we’re now sweeping under the rug as were busy trying to make these well-meaning but isolated fixes.

And nevertheless, you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater and be like well then adaptation is some kind of bad word. That ultimately when a technology or a space or even a practice is adapted to make it more inclusive, 99% of the time there’s a really strong social justice consideration which is being brought into place and that can’t be minimized because that just sets people against each other.

So we can have debates about what adaptations are may be appropriate and worthwhile and what are maybe too accommodating. And I think trying to find that line is actually really interesting and can engender really important public discourse.

[outro music]

MM: So while DIY technologies allow for customizations and can fill in gaps left by high tech devices, it also complicates the notion of technology. It complicates how we use tech to accommodate people of different abilities instead of re-thinking the things we can all do to make our society more accessible.

So this is what we’re going to continue to talk about: the consequences of using technologies in a way that bridges the gap between someone’s abilities and the way our society has been constructed.


MM: This episode was written and produced by Michelle Macklem with editorial assistance from Aimee Louw.

The Audio Toybox project started as a collaboration between Owen Chapman and PhD student Eric Powell.

Funding provided by the Mobile Media Lab, Graduate Student Mobility Award and Concordia University.

This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Music in today’s episode by opositive aka Owen Chapman and by me Michelle Macklem.

Special thanks to Alex Truesdell, Susan Fridie, Shira Gordon and Ella Louise Chapman.

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