Commerical assistive technology devices such as buttons and switches play a crucial role in promoting inclusion and independence for individuals with disabilities.
Unfortunately, these devices don’t come cheap. A single switch can cost upwards of $200 — and that’s money families and cash-strapped service providers simply don’t have.
Now, some resourceful provider agencies are turning to 3D printers to make their own affordable assistive tech (AT) devices.
3D printing is a manufacturing technology that turns a digital model into a solid, three-dimensional object by “printing” thin layers of material one on top of another. While 3D printers were originally developed for industrial purposes, they are now widely available for home, school, and office use.
Ability Beyond, a disability service agency in Connecticut and New York, received a grant from Verizon to purchase a 3D printer for their office to help meet their clients’ needs for affordable AT.
“If somebody needs a device that’s too expensive or not available off-the-shelf, a lot of times we can make it ourselves,” explains Laurie Dale, Ability Beyond’s Senior Leader of Empowering Technology. “For example, we were able to print a proximity switch using conductive material. Then we just cut a mono audio cable in half and connected the wires.”
The cost for the finished device? About $1.60.
Similar switches retail for hundreds of dollars, says Dale. “We’re a nonprofit, and the people we serve are strapped for cash too,“ she says. “3D printing assistive technology devices is affordable, and you can use it right away.”
The average cost of an entry-level 3D printer is about $700, while filament (the material used to print) costs around $10-25 per kilogram. Compared to the price of off-the-shelf assistive technology devices, a 3D printer creating assistive devices, pays for itself after just a few uses. Providers can search for technology grants to help cover the cost, or ask local businesses to donate or match funds to purchase a 3D printer.
When it comes to actually printing AT devices, Dale says the process is easier than providers might think. A quick Google search turns up pages of free 3D print files for devices like pill ejectors, key turners, and adaptive zipper pulls. From there, you simply download the files, choose the materials, and the printer will create the object layer by layer.
In addition to printing their own cost-effective AT devices, Ability Beyond has turned their 3D printer into an opportunity for learning and empowerment. The organization has built a unique educational training program, called the TIP (Technology Innovations for People) Squad, where individuals with intellectual disabilities learn how to make 3D printed devices, as well as train their peers and staff on how to use technology in the most effective way.
The TIP Squad is currently working on building a switch-activated dice shaker that allows switch users to roll dice and participate in a game with their peers. Dale says the final product will cost only a couple dollars to make.
For providers or families that don’t have access to a 3D printer, there are other ways to gain access to affordable AT devices. Makers Making Change is a nonprofit organization that connects people in need of assistive technology devices with volunteer makers. Most of the devices are made with a 3D printer, and are available to individuals for only the cost of materials and shipping. Eventually, Dale aims to have the TIP Squad become volunteer makers through Makers Making Change as well, and supply devices across the U.S.
In addition to making AT devices more affordable, Dale believes 3D printing could help solve other problems providers face.
“When you look at it from a staffing point of view, we desperately need DSPs to care about leveraging technology,” she says. “The first time I turned the 3D printer on, suddenly I had a room full of staff that were excited about technology and how it can benefit and empower the people they’re serving.”
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