A toy brought little Ari Moss to the center of the University of Georgia campus on Monday afternoon.
Specifically, a Playskool Busy Gears toy, which features colorful gears that turn and light up and, inexplicably to most adults, makes little boys and girls smile and laugh like toys are designed to do.
Only this was no ordinary toy, and this was no ordinary day, and Ari is no ordinary little girl.
The toy was adapted, “hacked,” even, by ambitious UGA freshmen.
These 16 freshmen were members of the “Geeks with a Cause” first-year Odyssey course, where they learned about people with disabilities, and then gave that knowledge hands and feet, enough to re-wire a toy so that little girls like Ari could operate it despite physical limitations that make even the simplest task nearly impossible.
“We were told there were families in need and how certain adaptations for toys can be very expensive, and (course instructors) showed us how doing what we do, we can knock the price down by more than 90 percent,” said Reggie Mosley, a mechanical engineering major from Albany. “But us doing this, some kids can have a nicer Christmas. That was our motivation to work as hard as we could.”
The course was the brainchild of Zo Stoneman and Becky Brightwell, who run the Institute on Human Development and Disability, a part of UGA’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences.
Their intent was simple.
“We build our environment for people who are a certain height, who have a certain amount of strength, who have a certain way of moving around,” Stoneman said. “For some people, that doesn’t work well. (The course) was an opportunity for students to think about how to problem solve and how to create various adaptations for people with disabilities.”
The first part of the course introduced the students to the world of life with disabilities. Back in August, several of them spent a day in a wheelchair to get a glimpse of how challenging life with disabilities can be.
The students represent various majors at UGA – everything from biology to statistics to business and special education – but few had intimate knowledge of the issue.
The second half of the course dealt with toys. Students were taught how to use a soldering iron and how to hack into a toy’s circuit board to bypass the original circuitry and create a “switch” that would allow kids with disabilities to easily activate the toy.
“She can’t make any toy functional,” said April Moss, Ari’s mother. “She has never actually activated a toy on her own.”
On this day, the “geeks,” as they were lovingly called by the parents of the four little boys and girls who received their new toys, delivered the adapted contraptions to their smiling recipients.
Seven-year-old Ella received a dancing “Rock Star Mickey” doll, as did little DJ, and Ari got her Busy Gears toy.
The toys are activated by a simple tap of a basic switch created from a soft plastic CD cover.
Over and over, little curly-haired Ari pressed the switch and watched the gears turn. She squealed with laughter each time.
“It made us feel on top of the world,” April said. “She’s so excited about it.”
She wasn’t the only one.
Brightwell and Stoneman stood alone after the room had cleared out. The kids had gone off with their parents and new toys; the students had left to prepare for upcoming finals.
The two directors went about tidying up the large conference room. Somebody asked them about these students, these 16 freshmen who made the world a little bit better on Monday.
“I’ve never been so proud in all my life,” she said. “It’s been one of those great classes that I think we were able to take to a different level.”
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