Tools to help communities mobilize AT maker-volunteers for children and adults with disabilities
fabricATe is a grassroots community-driven approach to getting low-tech assistive tools to children who need them in Delaware. And now it’s also a website of solutions and a model for communities.
The initiative was founded by Suzanne Milbourne, Ph.D. and inspired by the AT making of Therese Willkomm, Ph.D. Volunteers come together to make simple tools for children with developmental delay or disabilities (and adults are not turned away).
fabricATe fills a gap Milbourne has identified as Co-director to the Delaware Early Childhood Assistive Technology Demonstration (DECATD) project: young children with developmental delay or disabilities need everything from adapted seating to portable communication boards, and they need them right away. Commercial products may not be an option or the funding process may take too long, especially for young children at critical points in their development. Professionals don’t always have the time, resources or know-how to make these tools for their young clients. fabricATe gets the job done!
A communication book for a child created at a fabricATe fab lab.
Left: mobile device stands made from corrugated plastic campaign signs and adapted paint and glue brushes. Right: a paintbrush with a customized grip made from Instamorph.
Child garment protectors created at a fabricATe fab lab.
Milbourne worked with Phillippa (Pip) Campbell, Ph.D. and Jeanne Wilcox, Ph.D. on the Tots ‘n Tech Research Institute (TnT). TnT studied the use of AT with infants and toddlers by state programs, advised states on best practices, and eventually created a go-to website for practitioners and families on the creation and use of low-tech AT that included a Help Desk of ideas. TnT was a grant-funded collaboration between Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia and Arizona State University, Tempe that sunsetted in 2012. Milbourne’s work with TnT led her to conceptualize DECATD, a model demonstration project at the University of Delaware’s Center for Disabilities Studies (funded by US DOE) that also supports practitioners in the state of Delaware to use AT with their young clients.
These experiences helped Milbourne consider the challenges faced by families, clinicians, teachers, therapists and others who support young children with disabilities and developmental delay. “We found that clinicians and teachers had ideas about AT they thought would be useful for children, but they didn’t have time to make them, didn’t know exactly how to make them or what materials to use, and they would end up paying for whatever they did create.”
To address these obstacles, Milbourne envisioned a different approach to AT access for young children: a grassroots maker-movement model. fabricATe was born.
Milbourne’s original idea was for a website of simple solutions with instructions (similar to the now defunct TnT Help Desk resource). The web portal would provide a way to request a solution, upload a design, offer to volunteer or donate materials, while also providing access to experts. fabricATe4all.org accomplishes much of this, including recruiting volunteers, receiving solution requests, and requesting material donations. But fabricATe is not a crowd-sourced answer to AT. “We learned early on that getting volunteers together is very important to keep the momentum going,” Milbourne explains.
In addition to the web, fabricATe has held 12 fabrication laboratories throughout Delaware since 2016. “Any requests for solutions we get in a given month we bring to the fab lab where the volunteers come brainstorm and work together and then make things to deliver to the consumer.” Over 150 solutions have been created with the help of 78 volunteers to date. Most are professionals serving young children; the rest are university students, retirees, and homemakers.
fabricATe volunteers at work
Despite its US DOE funding support, fabricATe has impressive grassroots origins. Milbourne first pitched her fabricATe concept at a day-long AT-maker training hosted by DECATD and conducted by Therese Willkomm, Director of ATinNH. Out of 100 registrants, 36 volunteered to help create fabricATe, including 10 who met later to write up the fabricATe concept, guidelines, and policies.
DECATD is now in its final year of federal funding. fabricATe’s sustainability plan offers opportunities for individuals and organizations to adopt this AT maker model in their own community. fabricate4all.org contains the now-offline TnT Help Desk, a library of solutions that’s been sorely missed, along with new solutions made by fabricATe. (Check out fabricATe’s AT Solutions Search tool)
Milbourne is excited to see this maker movement to grow. The fabricate4all.org website has a template that is available to other communities and programs in the U.S. or even other parts of the world, she emphasizes. The template includes all the administrative pieces, forms, and procedures, plus solutions to help generate ideas.
Interested in creating a local fabricATe? Requests for the template can be submitted on the fabricate4all.org site or via email to email@example.com.
Lessons learned for organizations considering adopting the fabricATe model:
- Recruit a diverse volunteer base. A variety of people with different skills can make all the difference. People who sew, build with wood, solder, etc. and people who may have creative minds but are self-described “hands-off” people.
- Solicit donations of materials from your community to keep costs low. Donations can be corrugated plastic from campaign signs, fabric from individuals and businesses, space for fab labs and more. Don’t bulk up on purchased supplies ahead of time. You don’t know what you will be asked to build. Go after helping businesses reduce their waste.
- Having a single coordinator is essential. Someone who can help market and communicate with all types of participants and attend maker events.
- Hold fab labs to share ideas/skills and build momentum, comradery, and community.
- Hold fab labs in locations already related to assistive technology, such as an AT Regional Center of your State AT program (every state has one). These locations can help recruit volunteers and get the word out that community members are looking for projects. fabricATe makes use of the Delaware AT Initiative (DATI) for fab labs as well as other Delaware AT library locations.
- Stay flexible with what you will build. Resist becoming pigeon-holed with one or two types of requests. Don’t become the group known for making just makes one thing or another. Stay creative!
Save the date for AT Makers for All in New Hampshire to learn more about and from AT maker projects including fabricATe!
Tots ‘n Tech may have ended, but its YouTube Channel lives on.