How to Use 3D Assistive Technology to Help Students with Disabilities

3D technology can play a critical role in assisting students with disabilities. Photo: Xiaole Tao
3D technology can play a critical role in assisting students with disabilities. Photo: Xiaole Tao

By Ryotaro Hayashi, Naoki Hamanaka, Sonoko Hayashi

3D-printed assistive devices offer customized, cost-effective solutions for students with disabilities, enhancing inclusive education.

Students with disabilities face several challenges in learning, which were exacerbated by COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. During school closures, depending on their functional disabilities, without the support of teachers and classroom technology these students may not have been able to listen to the radio, watch educational TV programs, or participate in online classes.

Coming back to school, their learning challenges remain. Their learning recovery needs special attention, as the requirements for learning support are unique for each student, which is a challenge for teachers in inclusive education settings.

 Assistive technology, an umbrella term covering systems and services related to the service delivery of assistive products and services, can help personalize learning. One example is three-dimensional (3D) printing which is a manufacturing process to create physical objects from a digital design.

3D-printed assistive technology can customize cost-effective solutions for each student. Take hand size for example. Some students have difficulty holding pencils and although pencil holders can help, hand size varies for every child.

3D printers can adjust pencil holder dimensions to fit. And many 3D-printed assistive devices, data and codes are available on the internet, with functions to adjust dimensions. If 3D printers are available, the additional cost of producing a typical 3D-printed pencil holder could be less than $1.

Students and teachers can also come up with unique and innovative disability solutions themselves through a discussion, design and development process (a literal 3D!).

The unique and creative solutions can be shared with the public online to offer opportunities to provide solutions for people facing similar challenges around the world.

In a “makerthon”—combining “making” and “marathon”—held in February 2024 in Bhutan, assistive devices for people with specific disabilities were co-designed and created for “need knowers”—people with disabilities or occupational therapists who could articulate their requirements through their knowledge and experience.

First,  discussion is crucial to understand the learning challenges faced by people with disabilities. For example, the makerthon brought together key stakeholders from government and digital fabrication technology experts, in addition to students (with and without disabilities), teachers, and parents.

The presence of occupational therapists added significant value to enrich the discussion and professionally identify requirements of students with disabilities.

Second, “design” is another important process. Ideas can be sketched with colored pens and compared. Once the most promising idea is selected, free software such as Tinkercad is available for 3D modeling, which is intuitive and easy to use, even for beginners.

Existing assistive devices designed by occupational therapists can be transformed into much more stylish assistive devices that can make them more desirable and colorful for students with disabilities.

Finally, development of prototypes turns ideas into tangible products. This requires digital fabrication machines such as 3D printers, which are increasingly available at affordable prices.

There are a variety of filaments (3D printing materials) that can change the texture of the final products depending on the personal preference of each student with disabilities or ‘need knower’. The prototype is further reviewed and discussed for fine-tuning by receiving feedback from the people using the products and from occupational therapists.

 

With the help of this ‘3D’ process during the inclusive makerthon, one group created a 3D-printed writing cushion for a middle school student to avoid hurting his palm. Another group developed a portable handrail for the non-dominant hand of a primary school student to reduce trembling of her dominant hand. These assistive devices helped students to better write letters and draw pictures independently.

The ‘3D’ process is very inclusive and educational. It is not just about students with disabilities using personalized tools to support learning. Everyone involved can mobilize strengths to jointly create inclusive educational solutions.

This could even be an exemplary case of “science, technology, education, arts and mathematics” (STEAM) education. The unique and creative solutions can be shared with the public online to offer solutions for people facing similar challenges. In fact, similar events have been organized in other countries including Japan and France.

Nonetheless, scaling sustainable delivery of 3D-printed assistive technology remains a challenge. Sometimes, the procurement of consumables such as filaments is not easy for a stable supply of 3D-printed assistive technology, especially for geographically challenged small countries such as Bhutan or Pacific island countries.

Significant progress is needed to raise awareness among teachers and to increase the numbers of digital fabrication experts and occupational therapists. In fact, Bhutan has only a few occupational therapists. Moreover, 3D-printed assistive technology devices are generally not covered by insurance in many countries, which limits private sector participation in this market.

Every cloud has a silver lining, however. In Australia, 3D-printed personalized assistive devices for people with disabilities are covered by the National Disability Insurance Scheme. The production and use of 3D-printed assistive technology are actively explored in developing countries such as Nepal and Kenya.  Technology is advancing rapidly and producing customized 3D assistive technology will become easier for non-digital fabrication experts such as teachers and parents. The private sector is looking to tap into this market.

Technology alone cannot solve every problem. Different disciplines and initiatives should work together, especially with people who know the needs and can promote solutions for inclusive learning recovery for students with disabilities.