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June 10, 2016

Inventions: How do innovation and design help people with disabilities?

Students will learn about the role of inventions in improving accessibility for people with disabilities and create a paper or cardboard prototype of their own invention.

by Claire Valdivia


Science, design, math, social studies

Estimated Time

45-60 minute class period

Grade Level



  • projector connected to Internet or another way to show the video story
  • front board and chalk/markers
  • paper, cardboard, scissors, glue and other supplies that are available

Warm-up (15 minutes)

As a class, watch the story For children with disabilities, making the world a custom fit out of cardboard (6:57).

After watching, ask students:

  • What is a disability? – a condition that damages or limits a person’s physical or mental abilities
  • What is the difference between saying someone is “a person with a disability” vs. “a disabled person?” – Discuss why most prefer the term “person with a disability.”
  • What is accessibility? – the design of products, devices, services or environments for people with disabilities
  • How does the inventor in the story make chairs more accessible?


A Day in My Life (5 minutes)

Write “My Day” on the whiteboard and write headers for “morning,” “afternoon” and “evening.” Have students walk you through what they do on a typical day in each category and as they mention a new item, have them come up and write it on the board.

Invention Time (20+ minutes)

  1. Split the class into invention teams of 3-4 students and assign each group a disability (more than one group can have the same disability):
    • Deafness
    • Blindness
    • Physically impaired (needs to use a wheelchair)

*You may also want to discuss how accessibility is an issue for many groups, such as those with an intellectual impairment or speech impairment, but that today we will be focusing on the three categories above.

  1. Have each group look at the board and identify one item that would be difficult for someone with their assigned disability to do.
  2. Pass out paper, cardboard, scissors, glue and other supplies to each team.
  3. Challenge teams to come up with an idea that would make one of the tasks on the board easier for a person with the assigned disability to do. Tell students that as a team, they will need to make a prototype, or model, of their invention. Explain that the prototype should help people understand their invention idea even if it does not work with just paper or cardboard.

Closing Activity (5 minutes)

Have students share their prototype with the class and explain how it would help the group of people they were assigned.

Extension Activities

Watch the PBS NewsHour Extra video “Student’s wheelchair challenge makes Texas school accessible and complete the questions as a class.

How can schools improve accessibility to physical education for students with disabilities? Watch the PBS NewsHour Extra video “Empowering students with disabilities to find exercise they love.” and complete the questions as a class.

Claire Valdivia, PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs’ STEM coordinator, holds a master’s degree in library sciences from the University of Maryland.

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  • Standards

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    Relevant National Standards:
      CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.6.G.A.4 Represent three-dimensional figures using nets made up of rectangles and triangles, and use the nets to find the surface area of these figures. Apply these techniques in the context of solving real-world and mathematical problems.

      CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.7.G.B.6 Solve real-world and mathematical problems involving area, volume and surface area of two- and three-dimensional objects composed of triangles, quadrilaterals, polygons, cubes, and right prisms.

      CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.8.G.C.9 Know the formulas for the volumes of cones, cylinders, and spheres and use them to solve real-world and mathematical problems.

      CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.HSG.MG.A.3 Apply geometric methods to solve design problems (e.g., designing an object or structure to satisfy physical constraints or minimize cost; working with typographic grid systems based on ratios).*

      CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.HSG.GPE.B.6 Find the point on a directed line segment between two given points that partitions the segment in a given ratio.

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