NORTH HOLLYWOOD : Toys Rewired for Kids With Disabilities


Wielding solder guns, blow dryers and foam rubber, parents and staff at the Lowman Special Education Center became amateur electricians Wednesday as they learned to rewire battery-operated toys for use by disabled children.

Coffee and doughnuts went almost untouched as more than 50 adults, assisted by the North Hollywood firefighters who donated many of the toys, operated on barking, tail-wagging pups, helicopters, and police cars with multicolored, whirling sirens.

Workshop participants used remote foot switches to bypass the toys’ on-off switches. The new switches, much like the foot pedal of a sewing machine, are easier to operate for children who have limited use of their arms or hands.


The small, flat black box, which has had its spring removed, needs only slight pressure to activate the toy.

A 4-year-old boy with cerebral palsy cried excitedly as he pressed his head against the device attached to his wheelchair. Transfixed by the blinking lights of the race car in front of him, he seemed frightened by the noise, but cried more when he lost pressure and the car went silent.

Helen Hartell, Lowman’s principal, said the toys are bridging more than the practical issue of accessibility.

There is an important cognitive and esteem-building experience in the cause-and-effect lessons of simple play, she said.

“A child who is severely disabled, or isolated by their disabilities, can press the switch and say, ‘I’ve done something--and it made something happen.’ It opens up a whole new world for them,” Hartell said.

The curriculum at Lowman, which is part of the Los Angeles Unified School District, is functional rather than academic, Hartell said.


Students are trained in movement, trying to develop the strength to hold themselves in proper posture, “to focus outward,” she said.

“And these toys give them a reason to be interested in their environment, give them a link, teach them that they have some control, some independence.”

Becky Kober, whose 4-year-old daughter, Carly, has been a student at Lowman for a year, waited anxiously--almost nervously--to wire a bow-tied brown puppy. “I am trying to pay attention,” Kober said. “I am hoping to be able to do this on my own.”

Kober’s developmentally delayed daughter is content playing with stuffed animals, but Kober would like for her to have more stimulating toys.

“It is so hard to find challenging toys that she can manipulate herself,” she said. “And the ones that are specially made are very expensive.”

With the wires cut and spliced and the final piece of copper soldered into place, Carly’s puppy barks while it walks, flopping its ears, then sits up and begs.


According to Frank Rimkus, a 16-year volunteer at the center, “It is always a challenge to develop something that pleases both the students and the teachers.”

At Wednesday’s workshop, by the looks on their faces, it seemed everyone had risen to the challenge.