This year’s conference of America’s Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) finished with its very first Makers Day. Carol Allen was there to soak up the atmosphere.

ATiA 2018 was a huge success. According to the organisers ‘… attendance surpassed 2,900, which is a 15% growth over last year and a 100% growth in energy and excitement’.

ATiA has always offered pre-conference seminars that provide more in-depth coverage of specific topics. These complement a packed programme of seminars and workshops that allow the sharing of expertise and ideas, and the formation of new friendships and support networks. There’s also a comprehensive exhibition, with many of the companies that we know and love, but also the chance to spot something new: a product, device or company that will enrich our AT toolkit.

There are frequently informal opportunities to join in and share ideas too, not only in the intervals for coffee and lunch but at gatherings such as smack downs, town hall and edcamp, where people can meet, question and share collegiately. Simply put, despite the undoubted attractions of meeting in Florida in January, delegates take every opportunity to make the most of their time and return to their workplace armed with new ideas, things to try and useful contacts.


Maker Fair

Maker Fair at ATIA – Photographs courtesy of ATMakers.org.

This year, however, a new element was added. On the final day, Saturday, a ‘Maker Fair’ was held in a section of the main hall. The Maker Movement is for all ages and stages of education, and beyond. Humans have always ‘made’, ‘devised’ and ‘invented’ — indeed, all the products on display and sale in the exhibition are derived from a ‘Maker’ process.

The Maker Movement from a student’s perspective, is based on traditional educational beliefs. We all know that children learn best when they play and have an engaging experience. Jean Jaques Rousseau’s work ‘Emile’, published in 1762, celebrated the natural abilities of children and the importance of allowing them to learn and develop freely. This is at the heart of the Maker Movement.

The most influential pedagogue of the educational Maker Movement was Seymour Papert. His book, ‘Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas’ led to the first educational robot. His work with LEGO led to a robotics revolution in the classroom and his development of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab spawned the programming languages Scratch and Logo, along with many other projects that the form the pedagogical pillars of the current Maker Movement.

Example, how to solder and adapt a toy to make it switch accessible – Photographs courtesy of ATMakers.org.

ATIA’s inaugural Makers Day was organised in partnership with ATMakers.org Present were representatives of a community – ‘high school STEM and robotics students, hobbyists and DIY electronics enthusiasts’ — focussed on using their skills and insights to problem-solve and devise creative solutions to overcome the manifold barriers faced by people with disabilities. There were three areas: ‘Show and Tell’ where people presented current projects, explained how they worked and how they could enhance our practice; ‘Learn 2 Make’ where (very patient) people supported you step by step in making a simple end-product; and ‘Toy Adaptations’ where you could be shown, for example, how to solder and adapt a toy to make it switch accessible.

The buzz of the event was incredible! The last day of a large conference can be quieter than others, but this one certainly wasn’t. To be able to have a go in the ‘Learn 2 Make,’ area, you needed to queue. You could eagerly watch over the shoulders of others but if you wanted hands-on experience yourself you had to quickly slide into a seat the second it became vacant. Some projects were small, for example making a portable, collapsible stand for a smart phone or tablet. Others involved making switches from rejected plastic parts while more ambitious ones involved sawing through PVC pipes on the floor. You could take away your final product and, as with children, faces beamed as work was held aloft and proudly shown to colleagues.

The students enthusiastically shared their achievements with delegates. Some had undertaken their projects as part of their High School syllabus, others as part of a course or as members of a dedicated club. Explanations and advice were freely given and the sheer pleasure exuded by the students was energising.

The 3D printers were busy the entire time and showed how it’s possible to print items that we need — for example a set of personalised tactile symbols — that may not be commercially available.


Impact

Maker Fair at ATIA – Photographs courtesy of ATMakers.org.

We are already seeing the impact of the Maker Movement in our schools in both the UK and US. We are producing young people who think around a problem and seek ways to solve it rather than reaching for an off-the-shelf solution. This work flow and ideology lends itself perfectly to the field of special needs where for years we have adapted, changed and created, based frequently on the identified needs of a single student.

This has spread to some specialised areas too. For example, prosthetics can take a while to be measured for and produced and are often extremely expensive.  As children grow, the replacement part is outgrown and the process starts all over again. The BBC reported on Team Unlimbited, who from a garden shed and with the aid of a 3D printer are on a mission to produce free prosthetic arms for children, who can even have a say in the colour. Anyone with access to a 3D printer, some fishing line and a bit of Velcro can make one thanks to a blueprint the team has open-sourced. They are inundated with orders from across the world.

Making isn’t new, it’s what we do, and have always done as humans, but the current technological climate and revolution allows us all to make with technology. We need to embrace the technology, allow our pupils to become masters of it, and in so doing create a generation of makers rather than consumers. Well done ATIA for showcasing this!

If you would like to know more then follow the links in this article. On Twitter, you can follow @JudithSchoonov, @MakerShed and @at_makers among others. Finally, if you’re in the US in September why not check out the AT Makers For All Conference and Expo taking place at the Grappone Conference Center, Concord, New Hampshire on 29 September. Its goal is to help grow the collaboration of AT makers and users and explore solutions to everyday problems that are fast, affordable, customised and satisfying. It’s a goal we can all share.

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About Contributors

Carol Allen is an Advisory Teacher ICT and SEND/Inclusion in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. She is a regular presenter at conferences including ATiA.

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