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Designing for Kids with Special Needs

In 1981, Alex Truesdell met Erin, an infant with severe multiple disabilities. A few months later, her Aunt Lynn suffered a spinal cord injury that paralyzed both hands. An early childhood teacher at the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, Truesdell had a lightbulb moment. As she explained, “I had never heard of adaptive technology, but suddenly found myself waking up in the night thinking of adaptations.” Working with various materials, she began creating solutions for both Erin and her aunt, and soon set up a small workshop in her basement making adaptations for kids on her caseload. Eventually, Perkins hired her to create a formal program at the school, which is now in its 28th year.

In 2001, Truesdell founded the Adaptive Design Association, a nonprofit which builds custom adaptations for infants and children with special needs to enable them to participate in everyday activities. In consultation with the family, caregivers, teachers and others, each item is custom fit to the child’s specific needs, whether it’s a chair, desk, toy, or musical instrument. “Our purpose is to make the items that make a big difference in a kid’s life,” explains Truesdell. “It’s a great joy to do what I do because we’re making sure kids achieve their full potential.”

On September 28, 2015, Truesdell was named a MacArthur Fellow.