Project leader Kendrick Phillips looks at the design of a 3D print button. (Photos by Madelyn Weston/Carolina News and Reporter)

The 3D printing and design classes in Richland School District Two are collaborating with the USC School of Medicine to modify toys for children with disabilities.

Children with disabilities often have motor trouble, which can make them unable to turn an electronic toy on and off. And with plush toys that are activated by squeezing a hand or foot, the child might not have the physical stamina to squeeze and sustain pressure long enough for the toy to operate.

“Children learn through playing, so not being able to access a toy in a way that everyone else does isn’t a reason to prevent them from playing,” said Rachell Johnson, manager of the S.C. Assistive Technology Program at the School of Medicine’s Center for Disability Resources.

Modifying switches and adding push buttons helps children better hold and operate toys. There are adapted toys on the market, but they can cost $200, and switches are $65-$150, Johnson said. Many families can’t afford even one.

“It’s a learning experience for the students, and they are being exposed to what it’s like to work with a person with a disability,” she said. “Adapting toys is one way to have that engagement.”

Students who are modifying the toys explore the various ways a child may need them to be adapted, using motion control, voice activation or single push buttons. The goal for this year’s class is to create 50 switches and devices that can be used on any adapted toy.

The students seem to gain as much as the children who need help, Johnson said.

“I met a lot of people with special needs at RNE, so it’s kinda cool just to be doing something that could help them,” said Kendrick Phillips, a junior at Richland Northeast High School who is the project lead.

Johnson thinks it’s important for children to have a variety of modified toys because if they always play with the same toy, they won’t think play is fun.

People who want to help can donate toys through the program’s Amazon wish list or attend a workshop to assemble the toys.

Center for Disability Resources holds a two-day workshop each year to assemble the switches and modify toys. Between 30 and 60 people attend, Johnson said.

“Parents and family members are extremely excited,” Johnson said. “They look forward to this event every year. I think they’re just happy that their child has an accessible toy.”

Students from Richland Two’s Institute this year for the first time will be leading the workshop on Nov. 16 and 17. The students will teach participants soldering, drilling and sewing as they modify the toys.

It’s a chance for them to be in charge, Johnson said.

“We’re hoping to empower them to be leaders,” she said.

Nicolas Jones has been working with 3D printers in the classroom for eight years.

His classes are hands-on and operator based, Jones said. Each student has their own computer and 3D printer.

“We pretty much inundate them with the good stuff right away, get them printing things that they like,” he said.

Jones said his classroom is closer to a manufacturing building than a makerspace.

The resin printers at Richland Two can do more detailed and specific prints while the nylon printer creates material that’s more resilient, making the modifications last longer.

“This is really kind of a rapid prototyping scenario, where you’re just able to do some prep and test, and you can do it within the day if you’re quick enough,” Jones said.

He also wants to go beyond toys, to modify things such as fans for the disabled.

Phillips, the project leader, plans to study bioengineering to work on realistic prosthetics.

“It makes me happy just because it’s something that I as a high schooler can do to affect my community,” Phillips said.


Workshops can be requested anywhere in the state. Contact the S.C. Assistive Technology Program.

The toys that will be modified will be given an on-off switch.

A 3D printer in Jones’ classroom makes a button. 

Jones, right, shows a student how to locate files.