Campaign signs get new life to help people with disabilities

DURHAM, N.H. — The oversized Carly Fiorina campaign signs along New Hampshire’s Route 4 weren’t enough to keep the Republican presidential hopeful’s campaign alive past Tuesday’s primary, but they could end up helping people with disabilities live their lives more independently.

For the past four years, University of New Hampshire professor Therese Willkomm has been seeking donations of discarded campaign signs for use in her occupational therapy classes, where students cut up the corrugated plastic to create assistive items ranging from tabletop iPad stands to a clip that can hold a sandwich for someone who can’t use his arms.

“We noticed that there were tons of election signs all over and they were made of this corrugated plastic material, and we thought, ‘Holy cow, we can make tons of assistive technology solutions for people with disabilities. We can get a bumper crop of these signs coming in,'” Willkomm said. “And so we contacted the Democratic Party and the Republican Party and we asked them if they could donate the discarded election signs. We are now up to over 78 items you can make for people with disabilities using these election sign materials.”

Willkomm said she’s always looking for new ways to use everyday items to help people with physical challenges, and she urges her students to think outside the box, or in some cases, cut it up and re-use it.

Given the big role New Hampshire plays in the presidential nominating process with its first-in-the-nation primary, there’s no shortage of material. Willkomm recalled driving home Wednesday night and spotting the Fiorina signs.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this is really great. Let’s see if we can get them because they announced that they are stopping in the primaries, right?” she said.

Under New Hampshire law, all campaign signs must be removed by the second Friday after the election, though signs promoting the primary winners — Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders — can remain. Some campaigns save their signs and send them on to other states.

On Thursday, Willkomm’s class got a visit from 28-year-old Marika Steir of Atkinson, who has limited mobility due to cerebral palsy. Willkomm and her students used election signs to fashion a holder for her iPhone that can be attached to her wheelchair.

Steir’s aunt said her niece works full time at an adult day care center and strives to be as independent as possible. Steir currently keeps her phone in a bag hanging off the side of the chair, but that has not been ideal, she said.

“You worry about, is it going to fall out or someone going to steal it?” she said. “It makes her less independent if someone has to take it out and check it to see what the messages are.”

The items are cheap, durable and light-weight. And if someone doesn’t like the candidate depicted on the recycled sign, the items are easy to decorate with colorful foam sheets.

“The reason we love corrugated plastic and election sign stuff is that it washes up very easily, it lasts forever, things we’ve made four years ago are still working great today,” Willkomm said. “And what if someone said, ‘You know what? I don’t want this anymore.’ We can still salvage this piece, we can still make tons of things out of this material. So we can continue to reuse it over and over again. We are not going to throw any of this stuff away because you can make tons of solutions with it.”