Alumni Life

Empowering Ability

Holly Cohen gives people the tools to make everyday items accessible to all

Holly Cohen speaking at TED2016–Dream, in Vancouver, Canada.

Holly Cohen speaking at TED2016–Dream, in Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Bret Hartman / TED

By Angelo Ragaza

“Whether it’s the first or the 500th child, it’s amazing every single time.”
Holly Cohen, BS ’97

Quick: Name a gadget or appliance you use constantly and would be lost without. Chances are, you can’t limit yourself to just one. There are those that have practically become appendages: cellphone, tablet, remote. Then there are those—microwave, coffee machine, vacuum cleaner—whose convenience we take for granted.

But for the more than one in five people in the U.S. with a disability, using or enjoying such items is not a given. More than 15 million adults have conditions that give them difficulty with everyday activities like housework, answering the phone and preparing meals. And millions of children don’t have the range of motion or motor skills required to do something as simple as turn on a toy.

“Some companies sell toys that come adapted for children with disabilities,” says occupational therapist Holly Cohen (BS ’97), “but they’re extremely expensive.” Adapted toys, she says, can cost up to four times the usual price.

Cohen and her business partner, John Schimmel, a web developer with experience in electronics, decided to do something about the situation. Both had considerable experience using assistive technology to help people with disabilities go about their lives—for example, adapting a computer mouse for a particular patient’s use. They wanted to empower patients, and their caregivers, with the tools and information to hack into existing devices themselves. “We wanted to teach people to create their own solutions,” Cohen says.

So they founded DIYAbility, a startup that develops and distributes “hacking kits,” and educates people on how they can adapt everyday toys and appliances to work for them.

“All battery-operated toys have little switches inside the toy,” Cohen explains. “It’s very easy to take a toy apart, find the switch, add a mono jack and once you add that, connect an ability switch or button.” (An ability switch is an external device that creates alternate ways to use items like computers and appliances.) “Then the child can activate the toy by hitting this switch or button with their head or their foot.”

DIYAbility offers a toy-switch hacking kit and a battery-interrupt kit on its website. The company will soon release Capacita, a game controller designed for those with a narrow range of motion. “If someone can access a computer with their head or their breath, then they can play video games,” Cohen says. “Their laptop or computer is their controller.”

They also run toy-hacking workshops, including one near the end of the year called Hacking for the Holidays.

Cohen, who is program manager of assistive technology and driving rehabilitation at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, credits her training at UB with sparking her interest in innovation. “I had one sense of what occupational therapy was before I started,” she says. Then a classmate (James Lenker, PhD ’05, BS ’97, now an associate professor at UB) introduced her to UB’s Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (also known as the IDeA Center), whose multidisciplinary approach to human-centered design greatly appealed to her creative bent and interest in technology. The experience there, she says, “really opened my eyes to what could be done outside of the traditional roles of OT.”

According to Cohen, DIYAbility has no current plans to patent its kits and tools. “They’re open-source,” she says. She hopes this approach—empowerment through shared information—enables more people to experience what she witnesses every time she sees a child play for the first time with a toy once thought inaccessible.

“Whether it’s the first or the 500th child, it’s amazing every single time,” Cohen says. She has seen people, who’ve been awakened to their potential through technology, return to school, formulate work goals and help other people with disabilities. “People develop a sense of self-esteem and independence. They start to think, ‘What more can I do?’”