Innovative Cardboard Designs Benefit Special Needs Children

For many special needs children, navigating our standardized world poses a formidable challenge. Imagine trying to cross a room without the use of your legs, or sit at the school lunch table when you’re half the height of your peers. And trying to find solutions for problems that change as you grow can be seemingly impossible.

Adaptive Design's writing easel features a design to help facilitate the development of fine motor and handwriting skills. Photo: Adaptive Design

One New York City organization has made the world a little bit more manageable for hundreds of individuals by using a less-than-revolutionary material: recycled cardboard boxes.

At the Adaptive Design Association, cardboard boxes aren’t throwaway containers; they’re a versatile, durable construction material. Discarded boxes become stools and transfer stairs, modify tricycles and reposition reading easels.

Families and individuals typically come to the Association with an idea, or a worry, and work with trained designers to create customized cardboard items.

The Association also trains parents and therapists in cardboard carpentry, empowering them to make specific adaptive equipment for their children and the children in their care.

Founder and Executive Director Alex Truesdell vividly recalls the day she first met a man whose chair had been specially modified with cardboard.

“I found it absolutely riveting,” she remembers. The chair’s cardboard inserts were “a flexible, affordable, environmental adaptation,” that completely served the patient’s needs. Truesdell has spent her life working with special needs children and adults and knows all too well that mass-produced equipment can be expensive, hard to obtain and ultimately a poor fit.

You may think of cardboard and envision a soggy pizza box, but in Truesdell’s experience, kids tend to grow out of their cardboard adaptations before the adaptations wear out.

“This is industrial strength stuff, used for shipping goods around the world,” says Truesdell. “Most of what we make is redistributed to suit the needs of another child. We do everything we can to avoid landfill.”

With some simple engineering, sealed edges and a coat of cheery latex paint, the Adaptive Design Association creates items that can be re-adapted to suit another child when the original user no longer needs it. As long as the cardboard pieces aren’t left out in the rain, it’s astonishing how long they can last. The boxes themselves are collected from various businesses, including moving companies and Fresh Direct.

Not only do the boxes come to the Association after a cycle of use, but corrugated cardboard tends to be made of partially recycled materials – sometimes as much as 60 percent – making it an even more eco-efficient material. Cardboard is lightweight, malleable and poses no threat to vulnerable children. Unlike many synthetic building materials, it contains no toxins and will never splinter or shatter.

In a market dominated by high-tech electronics and expensive gadgetry, cardboard carpentry stands out as a reminder that sometimes the best solutions are also the easiest. Rather than purchasing an elaborate, adjustable chair for a child, a customized cardboard inset can make he or she just as comfortable and can be replaced cheaply and easily as the child grows.

Check out the Association for yourself by registering for one of its open cardboard carpentry workshops at its West 36th Street location in New York City. If you’re not in the area, you can learn more about the program and donate online.

Among The Giants from Adaptive Design on Vimeo.

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