Getting People With Disabilities Involved in the Maker Movement

DIYAbility facilitates custom devices made for them and, in some cases, by them

30 October 2017

DIYAbility is bringing tinkerers, people with disabilities, their caregivers, and occupational therapists together to develop affordable custom gadgets that make technology more accessible.

Its goal is to encourage people to adapt and build devices to help improve quality of life for those with disabilities. DIYAbility frequently holds workshops in New York City to do just that. The “Hacking for the Holidays” event, for example, is scheduled for 19 November.

DIYAbility was founded by occupational therapist Holly Cohen and John Schimmel, a professor of assistive technology and Web development at New York University.

The organization also holds webinars. Its 8 November webinar will cover smart-home technologies that can help people with disabilities control lighting, thermostats, and electronics.

“DIYAbility encourages makers to focus on what people can do, instead of on what they can’t,” Schimmel says. He spoke about the organization at this year’s CSUN Assistive Technologies Conference, in San Diego, which The Institute attended.


Schimmel’s first experience designing assistive technology was in graduate school at NYU. There he met Cohen in a class that brought together engineering and physical therapy students to design and build assistive technology. The students worked with a teenager who was paralyzed from the waist down but had impressive upper body strength and agility. He wanted to play songs like a DJ, so they built pressure sensors that could work with his wheelchair.

“If he spun the left wheel, the music would fade, and the right wheel would make a record-scratching sound,” Schimmel explained. “Since he had great trunk balance, we designed the system so he could change the song by leaning his torso to the left or the right.”

Another project involved designing a TV remote control for a child with disabilities. The boy has limited fine movement, so the device was built with one large button that scans through channels when pressed; the remote lets him access only kid-friendly channels. One of the makers was the child’s father, an engineer.

DIYAbility works on fun applications too. It teamed with staff members at a full-time care facility for children with disabilities on an accessible, remote-controlled device that makes funny noises so the children can play practical jokes on their caregivers. Cohen describes the project in the TED talk below.


Schimmel recently worked with a patient with muscular dystrophy who wanted to play video games with his brother like they did before his disease advanced.

The patient had some strength and control in his neck and could still use the index and middle fingers on one hand. Schimmel and the other makers designed a video-game controller with two buttons and a sensor that could track the patient’s head movements. The patient could direct a cursor on a screen by simply turning his head up, down, left, and right. The controller works with the PlayStation 3 console.

The patient also became interested in learning the Java code running the controller, even though he had no previous programming experience.

Helping people with disabilities not only learn how to use the technology but also what goes into developing it is a crucial part of DIYAbility’s mission, Schimmel says. “The job gap for people with disabilities is huge,” he notes. According to, only about 24 percent of people who were dependent on a wheelchair in 2015 were employed.

“For people with disabilities, getting involved in creating their own computer interfaces is a big deal,” Schimmel says. And assistive technologies, like adaptable interfaces, can enable them to learn coding and other skills that can ultimately land them jobs, he says.

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