2015 was the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disability Act. This landmark civil rights bill provided legal protection and rights to access for everyone. Within those short 25 years, much has been accomplished in providing equal access to buildings and adaptive equipment.
However there are still people with disabilities that do not have access to affordable adaptive devices and tools they need. Public services often struggle to provide mandated accommodations. Specialized devices are expensive and difficult to maintain, leading to customer frustration.
3D printing is a technology that can bridge many of these issues.
As of January 2016, The US Department of Labor has the following employment statistics.
The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 10.8%; compared to 5.1% for people without disabilities. This statistic means people with disabilities are twice as likely as non-disabled people to be unemployed.
The labor force participation is 19.5% for people with disabilities; compared to 67.9% for people without disabilities.
According to the United Nations, 50 – 90% of people with disabilities are unemployed globally.
The cold reality is that most of the worlds disabled people do not have the financial resources to afford the adaptive equipment they need.
Cup Holder Case Study
When it comes to people who use a wheelchair, a cup holder can be a valuable accessory. While the cup holder can carry cups, it can also hold phones and other personal items close at hand. It can free up the users hands when they transition through their daily activities.
A quick search in Amazon of wheelchair cup holders produced a range of commercial cup attachments that ranged from $6.00 USD to $40.00 USD and up.
A similar quick search in Thingiverse revealed three 3D printable designs for wheelchair cup holders.
I chose this design because it was flexible enough to fit many different wheelchair designs. It also took the most material of the designs that worked directly with a wheelchair.
This file takes ~5 hours to print and assemble with no support material or rafts. With PLA plastic at $0.06 a gram, this project at 75 grams of material cost $4.50 USD in material.
In this example there is a cost savings of $1.50 USD for 3D printing a cup holder. While this is not much in the US, the difference is much more pronounced in developing countries. In developing countries, millions of people live on less than $0.75 USD a day. Having a cup holder 3D printed locally will bring the price point of this accessory down.
If the 3D printer can use locally sourced plastic instead of importing filament that can bring the price point for filament down further.
Prosthetic Hand Case Study
A cup holder is a convent accessory for a wheelchair. However, what if we look at the cost of a prosthetic hand? These are devices that are far more essential to the user then a cup holder.
Conventional prosthetic hands start in the thousands of USD, and go up from there depending on the complexity and electronics involved.
Another problem is fitting them to the user. Many commercial prosthesis require an extensive fitting process by a qualified medical professional. In developing countries, these specialists are difficult to find.
For children this presents a major issue. How can families in developing countries afford expensive hands that the child will outgrow?
Enter e-NABLE; this charity group has released the files for their series of prosthetic hands open source. E-NABLE has also produced a set of instruction and resources to let any 3D printer produce a prosthetic hand.
3D printers can volunteer to 3D print for e-NABLE, and produce affordable or free prosthetic hands to children around the world.
I 3D printed a draft of the Raptor Reloaded hand at 1.5x the original size to fit an adult.
The file took 2 weeks to 3D print and assemble (pro tip, read ALL the instructions from e-NABLE).
For $0.06 USD a gram for ColorfabbXT filament and some other materials I scrounged around my home, my print came to a final weight of 406 grams.
Final cost of my adult sized Raptor Reloaded hand: $24.36 USD.
To compare the cost of the cup holder and prosthetic hands.
- Item Commercial Cost | 3D Printed Cost | % Price Difference
- cup holder $6 – 40 USD | $4.50 USD | 28.5 – 160 %
- Prosthetic hand $2,000 + USD | $24.36 USD | 195% +
It is clear from both of these examples that 3D printing offers a price savings on any item.
By 3D printing locally, the 3D printer eliminates the high transportation cost of the item from factory to site. 3D printing can also work in isolated regions with recycled plastic bottles as a filament source. 3D printing does not have an economy of scale, so 3D printers can print one item for the same cost as 100. In this way 3D printing is far more economical for custom production of items for people with disabilities.
A hallmark of 3D printing is how easy it is to customize an item. By changing the scale, a 3D printer can shrink an item to fit a 2 year old or expand it to fit a 20 year old.
3D printers can also customize the color and fit to the user. This can be seen in the variety of e-NABLE hand designs. For the user, appearance is an important part of the use of the device.
With easy to use CAD programs, anyone can quickly make a custom item to match a 3D print with a unique need.
People who are Blind / Visually Impaired
3D printing is an amazing way to provide tactile input. Braille library cards can be printed for free at a local library.
3D printing is used to produce tactile versions of famous paintings. Now anyone can touch Mona Lisa’s smile, or feel George Washington crossing the Delaware.
For blind children, it is difficult to find tactile reading material. The University of Colorado Boulder has started the Tactile Picture Books Project.
This project is working to produce the files for popular children’s books. You can now 3D print your favorite children’s book with tactile pictures and braille anywhere. As the library expands, people that are blind will have a richer experience reading with tactile books.
Autism / Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) / PTSD
3D printing can be an important tool for people with autism, SPD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). With both neurological differences, tactile input is important.
Some people with autism need lots of tactile stimulation to help calm them. For this type of sensory feedback, 3D printing can produce fidget toys that they can use to rub on their arms or body to calm themselves.
For PTSD, a handheld fidget can help relieve stress and refocus the mind when a person is having a difficult time.
As a person with autism myself, I have used fidgets I have 3D printed to help calm me in public places. I have seen a friend use their 3D printed fidget to help with pain management.
Schools can incorporate fidgets as part of a student’s IEP or 504 plan. Fidgets are a great way for students to release nervous energy quietly in class. They can also help relive testing anxiety.
3D-PT has even started a business to develop and 3D print fidgets for people with autism.
3D Printing for People with Disabilities
3D printing is a technology that can greatly help the disabled around the world. 3D printed items are affordable compared to commercial products. 3D printed items can be customized, unlike commercial products.
In this blog I covered how 3D printing can help people that are blind, or who have neurological differences. This is a small sample of how 3D printing can provide essential items for people with disabilities.
If you want 3D-PT to explore how 3D printing can help a specific disability, please leave a comment on this blog page, and I would love to blog about it!!