Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

For Kids With Disabilities, University of North Florida 'Adaptive Toys' Can Be Life Changers

Jessica Palombo
UNF mechanical engineering student Kristian Sipos works on a car for a young child with disabilities.

The holidays are coming early for some Jacksonville children with disabilities. On Friday evening, they’re getting special vehicles and toys modified just for them.

University of North Florida students adapted the toys as part of a class that meshes engineering and physical therapy.

On Thursday, students were putting the finishing touches on the cars they’re upgrading for eight lucky patients, like Brycen, who has Down syndrome. His vehicle is a mini BMW with lots of customization.

Physical therapy doctoral student Nicholas Amargo said the 1-and-a-half-year-old isn’t crawling or walking yet, so, “This is going to be a way for him to get across the room or go play with family members instead of having to be picked up and moved wherever he wants to go, so this is going to be really huge for him.”

The car seat is upholstered with U.S. Navy logos, a nod to Brycen’s Navy dad. The rest of the changes are more than cosmetic: foam padding will keep him in place, and a modified joystick remote control will let his parents take over if he gets stuck across the yard.

Another addition is a musical keyboard where the foot pedals would go. Amargo’s teammate, senior engineering student Kristin Dilley, says the boy’s family gave input on the design.

“They also wanted to engage his feet, so we added just a play mat in there, so this way, he’ll be able to engage his feet by playing a little piano,” she said.

Amargo and Dilley next to car
Credit Jessica Palombo / WJCT News
Students Nicholas Amargo and Kristin Dilley are part of the team that modified this car for a young patient.

Assistant Professor of physical therapy Mary Lundy co-teaches the class. She says the vehicles are much more than toys— they make it possible for very young kids with visual or cognitive disabilities to eventually use motorized wheelchairs—something they likely couldn’t do otherwise.

“We have children that would not traditionally be even considered as a candidate,” she said. “They get to practice, so when it’s time for school, they’re tested, and they can do it because they’ve gotten to practice the skills.”

She said after they receive the cars, as well as smaller modified toys, the children will be invited back in four months to check  their progress. Over the past two years, patients have shown improved social and motor skills—and visually impaired students have even shown improved vision, she says. Patients are referred to the program by their physical therapists.  

The UNF interdisciplinary adaptive toy program is in its third year, with at least four more years guaranteed by a recent grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Contact Jessica Palombo at 904-358-6315, or on Twitter at @JessicaPubRadio.

Jessica Palombo supervises local news gathering and production, podcasts and web editorial content for WJCT News, ADAPT and Jacksonville Today. She is an award-winning writer and journalist with bylines including NPR, Experience Magazine, and The Gainesville Sun. She has a master’s degree in broadcast and digital journalism from Syracuse University and is an alumna of the University of Florida. A nearly lifelong resident of Jacksonville, she considers herself lucky to be raising her own children in her hometown. Follow Jessica Palombo on Twitter: @JaxJessicaP