The 'Toy Doctor' is in

Dale Zimmerman makes toys work for children with physical disabilities
Last Updated: 23rd December 2009, 8:27am

I'll bet Santa's tried to recruit Dale Zimmerman.

But Saint Nick himself couldn't trade all his elves for the Toronto District School Board's own "toy doctor."

Zimmerman does something better than making toys.

With the cut of her jigsaw, a twist of her wrench and an unstoppable imagination, she makes toys and a host of other learning materials come to life for physically challenged children, adapting them with a range of ingenious, hotwired changes that let these kids play, too.

"You can always tell the things Dale has built because the kids are always using them," says Julie Suh, vice-principal of Sunny View Public School, where Zimmerman produces customized, adapted equipment in a basement workshop for children across the TDSB.

"She allows kids to be independent and participate in things they might otherwise not have an opportunity to do," says Suh.

Sunny View has 135 students from kindergarten to Grade 8, each with one or more major physical or health challenges requiring adjustments in how they are taught.

"Boys love playing with cars, but if they don't have the hand skills, they can't," says Zimmerman.

So she rigs up a button-activated switch to the side of a child's wheelchair headrest, connected by a wire to the toy's battery. The child nudges the button with his head and voila -- the car goes.

Zimmerman also rigged up a toy Zamboni with markers attached. Using similar switch mechanics, the child "drives" the Zamboni, which swirls the marker colours on the page.

For children with few ways to communicate, such adjustments can open otherwise locked doors to self expression -- and learning.

A mom of two grown boys, Zimmerman came to Sunny View 15 years ago as an educational assistant, with no inkling she would put her lifetime of machine shop and woodworking skills to use.

But she quickly saw problems she could solve.

Her first project was a teddy bear beloved by a deaf boy in kindergarten with no language skills and little interest in anything else. Dale took the bear home, cut off the paws and cut holes in the arms so she could put her hands through them and start showing the boy sign language. The boy eventually became a fluent signer.

After that, "I just kept taking things home" she said.

She has made thousands of adaptations -- and Zimmerman is now funded directly by the provincial government to do equipment adaptation full-time.

There have been hundreds of creations to help kids hold a marker. A T-ball set was rigged so students in wheelchairs hit a button to swing the bat.

One girl asked Zimmerman to make something so she could feed herself. The toy doctor fashioned a miniature Lazy Susan so the girl could rotate the plate with her chin.

The recipient of the 2007 Premier's Award for Excellence in Teaching confesses to always being on the lookout for adaptable toys and gadgets -- even on vacations.

"I drive my husband crazy," she says. But, "when somebody has a problem with a kid, sometimes it will be six weeks before I come up with something -- but it doesn't go very far out of my mind."

As for any potential recruitment campaign by Santa, the big guy is out of luck.

Zimmerman plans to keep doing what she's doing for as long as possible.

"I'm lucky," she says. "I get to come down to my workshop and play every day."


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