Rachel sits at her desk, in front of 3D printers and adapted toys

Rachel Thiros is a pediatric occupational therapist at a school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who works with students with various disabilities.

“I’m also an assistive technology professional, so I use a lot of those skills with my students,” she explains. “In terms of what I do, it’s whatever the kids need to participate in class, whatever’s holding them back, those are the different things we work on in occupational therapy.”

This year, one of her kindergarten students has limited arm and leg movement, and uses a head controlled wheelchair.

“I said, ‘What are we gonna do that’s gonna value that strength so he can participate with all the skills he has?’ So we know he can use his head, how can we use his head so he can be successful in school, that’s what it came down to for me.”

Initially, Rachel thought of using a mouthstick, but after trial and error, decided to go with a head pointer, allowing the student to use their mouth for other tasks.

But she couldn’t find any suitable head pointers to purchase.

“I wanted something mild, that didn’t stick out, that made him feel comfortable with his peers,” she says.

Rachel learned about Makers Making Change last summer from her friend Loreto Dumitrescu, an occupational therapist and New York City chapter leader, and had learned how to make switch operated devices at a MMC and Jericho Adapts Toys hosted workshop.

She found a couple of items in the assistive device library that were a perfect fit for her student — the adapted head pointer and the light touch switch, which the student could use to activate toys. A paint spinner she had at home was adapted to be used with the headstick and light touch switch.

A student using an adapted head pointer to write with a marker.

While Rachel was initially concerned with how her student would like the device, he has really enjoyed it, helped in part by the cool Dunkin’ Donuts hat a student teacher gave him that he attaches the head pointer to.

“He’s made probably 20 of these,” she says, pointing to circles her student has painted. “He just loves to do this.”

They’ve printed a number of head pointers, allowing him to use it with a variety of tools without having to disassemble, including paintbrushes, markers, and even a fork, which allows him to work on eating independently.

“He’s working on that and he likes working on that, because he likes having a chicken nugget whenever he wants it, not asking someone.”

She wants to further work on the adapted head pointer design to continue to improve on it.

“I am really glad that your website is there for people to use, and I love that the plans are shared without a cost involved, because people I think who are looking for this are not people that should have to spend money for it, when it’s something that they just need to follow through in everyday life, and giving them access to doing things that they want to do that everybody else does,” she continues.

“I don’t know how I would have made these kinds of adaptations for my student without that kind of resource.”

Continued Adapting

An electric scissors adapted to be controlled by a switch.

The head pointer and paint spinner set weren’t the only devices Rachel has been working on recently.

“The adapted scissors were something I was looking for, and weren’t easily available, and I did find them somewhere, but they were so expensive, they were over $100,” she explains. “We have this skill now to adapt things, I know how to do it, I have the materials, so based on the paint spinner, I made the electric scissors.”

Using a battery operated electric scissors, Rachel, and her student teacher Carly Lutz, adapted it so it could be activated with a light touch switch. With the help of their assistant, the student can now participate in cutting activities.

She has advice for makers looking to adapt their own devices.

“Do you know how many headphones I’ve thrown away? You need to know not to throw away those broken headphones, because it’s an audio cable that you need to make an adapted toy, like had I saved those cables, I wouldn’t have had to re-buy them,” she says.

And perhaps most importantly of all, test your devices.

When trying to use her devices, Rachel found that with the head pointer, some pens worked better than others — she found the InkJoy ballpoint pen wrote the smoothest out of any pen, and some pens and writing utensils didn’t work too well.

“Try your device. Try it as though you were using it like the person who it’s intended for,” she says. “That’s meaningful, because when I put on the hat, and tried to write with it — which I didn’t do first, I did that after — I did see how the marker got stuck on paper, and I’m asking this of a five year old, and I want him to be successful.”