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For children with disabilities, making the world a custom fit out of cardboard

January 6, 2016 at 6:15 PM EDT
MacArthur fellow Alex Truesdell sees a world of possibilities in a simple piece of cardboard. At her Adaptive Design Association, cardboard furniture and learning tools are built for children with disabilities to help them realize their potential. Special correspondent Jackie Judd reports.

GWEN IFILL: Now to an inspiring story about one of last year’s MacArthur grant winners and how design can change lives.

Special correspondent Jackie Judd reports for our Breakthroughs series on innovation and invention.

JACKIE JUDD: In the hands of Alex Truesdell, a simple piece of cardboard turns into a world of possibilities. Her life’s mission began by accident.

Truesdell was rooting around in a closet at a school where she was teaching and found a chair that had been made for a disabled adult.

ALEX TRUESDELL, Founder, Adaptive Design Association: The armrest and the footrest on it were actually at different heights on the left side than the right side. And I asked about it, and they said, oh, that’s made of cardboard. And I think my head exploded.

JACKIE JUDD: Why did your head explode?

ALEX TRUESDELL: The idea that you could take that material and turn it into what you needed, that, if you needed something, you could make something.

JACKIE JUDD: Truesdell has been making something ever since with her triple-ply cardboard, glue and simple tools. In New York City, at the Adaptive Design Association, which she founded, cardboard furniture and learning tools are built for children with disabilities.

ALEX TRUESDELL: It makes the child, one, believe in their own capacity, and then everyone who knows and loves the child believe in what they’re able to do. I think it upends the prognosis, because, so often, unfortunately, the word disability signals broken, can’t, isn’t.

JACKIE JUDD: Creating this very individualized furniture often involves a house call. In suburban New Jersey, 21-month-old Austin Kellenberger is getting his first fitting for a chair and a table.

JOHN KELLENBERGER, Father of Austin: Austin has significant motor development issues. He has difficulty even moving his arm.

JACKIE JUDD: Today, even as a toddler, dad John Kellenberger says, Austin feels apart from his twin brother and older sister.

JOHN KELLENBERGER: Oftentimes, my other son, Dylan, and my daughter, Savannah, will be playing at the table with toys. He’s not able to do that. So, you do see he is very frustrated. He wants to — he’s a very social boy. He wants to be part of the group.

JACKIE JUDD: This furniture is supposed to make that possible, to make Austin feel less different and to build his physical strength.

ALEX TRUESDELL: Right now, he fatigues quickly, but he hasn’t had the right chair in order to build strength. So, the angles of this will actually give him a bit of a challenge.

JACKIE JUDD: Cardboard is relatively inexpensive, readily available and really sturdy, a trifecta for growing kids and for families, often burdened by medical costs, who are asked for contributions of just $500.

Austin’s chair is measured, and measured again, and cut to within an eighth of an inch, so it is just exactly right for the little boy.

ALEX TRUESDELL: We need a custom fit in an off-the-rack world. And if it doesn’t fit, if the child struggles, and they’re already struggling, it’s going to use up that energy and be discouraging. And then they or someone else will give up, and get the wrong idea about the child’s potential, as opposed to being inspired enough to change the thing, change the environment to make it work.

JACKIE JUDD: Truesdell saw that happen in her own family, and it was a life-changer. Her uncle turned conventional household tools into something her aunt, who had lost the use of her hands, could manipulate.

ALEX TRUESDELL: My uncle was able to repurpose things, bend things that were too straight, cut things that were too long, connect things. And that thought, that you could engineer change to suit her specific needs, is really the root of this.

JACKIE JUDD: The workshop has turned out pieces this year for more than 200 New York area kids, but many more children can use them.

So, Alex Truesdell and her team spend as much time teaching as they do designing and building. In the last several years alone, they have led several hundred design workshops and have answered inquiries from around the globe. As a result, these cardboard creations are being built in about six U.S. locations and in countries as diverse as India, Romania and Peru.

ALEX TRUESDELL: We try to use methods here that could be used anywhere in the world. So, any technique, anything we make, the materials we use, we want other people to see what we do and copy it. We really are trying to supply the movement, so that we would inspire imitation, cooperation, and collaboration throughout.

JACKIE JUDD: Truesdell sees some children only once and others throughout their lives. She met New York City teenager Hannah Auchincloss as a toddler, when Hannah’s mother, Tracy Ehrlich, was struggling to find a chair in which Hannah could feed sitting up.

TRACY EHRLICH, Mother of Hannah: She couldn’t do any of those things, and she was much too small for conventional wheelchairs.

JACKIE JUDD: So there was nothing you could have ordered online, or gone into a medical supply store and say, that’s what I need, that’s what would help her?

TRACY EHRLICH: No, absolutely not, because she was so young.

JACKIE JUDD: Ehrlich has lost track of all the pieces Truesdell has made for Hannah, and even some for her sisters, so the family feels bound together, instead of separated by Hannah’s challenges. But some pieces stand out, like the bike, the scooter and a beloved rocking chair that Hannah can get moving on her own.

ALEX TRUESDELL: The experience of moving herself at just — one thing she can really control every day.

TRACY EHRLICH: I think that all of the different pieces of equipment have opened up the possibilities for her, the opportunities for her to interact with her world, interact with the people who are around her.

JACKIE JUDD: In New Jersey, Austin Kellenberger is just beginning to interact with his world. His furniture has been delivered. And what most see as a simple chair, his parents, John and Danielle (ph), see as transformative.

JOHN KELLENBERGER: I want Austin to reach whatever the potential that he has. I want him to reach that. I don’t know what that is. The doctors don’t know what that is at this point. But whatever it is, I want to give him every chance to meet that. And this is one of the — frankly, this is one of the things that’s helping us do that.

JACKIE JUDD: Alex Truesdell started out as a teacher for the blind. What she has done is let children, thousands of them, see and experience movement, growth and confidence, all through a simple piece of cardboard and a lot of ingenuity.

This is Jackie Judd in New York for the NewsHour.