Two-year-old Ellie Stafford has Down syndrome, and she hasn’t learned to walk or crawl yet. But thanks to a program that turns ordinary toy cars into personalized vehicles for young children with disabilities – she’s unstoppable.
Ellie was one of 10 Oregon children who recently got the chance to test drive and take home modified toy cars designed to empower children with mobility challenges to play and socialize more independently, Oregon’s Statesman Journal reports.
They were gifted the life-altering cars as part of a program called Go Baby Go, which benefits kids with a range of diagnoses – including Down syndrome, spina bifida and cerebral palsy.
Commercial wheelchairs for children under three can cost $30,000 and are often not covered by insurance policies, explains Sam Logan, an assistant professor at Oregon State University who established the program at the school, after it was originally founded at the University of Delaware. In the meantime, these children can suffer setbacks in cognitive, language and social development, he explains.
“There’s no reason kids with disabilities shouldn’t have a right to be mobile,” says Logan, who has given nine Go Baby Go trainings across the country since September.
On Wednesday, Oregon State University trained a group of Willamette Education Service District (WESD) clinicians in Salem, Oregon, to alter off-the-shelf, ride-on toy cars using plastic pipes, plastic foam swim noodles, kick boards, fabric fasteners and an activation switch.
The results were awe-inspiring. Toddler Ellie, who usually scoots on her bottom to get around, steered her car confidently around obstacles as her father, Jesse Stafford, clapped and recorded her ride.
She’ll be able to keep up with her 6- and 8-year-old brothers now, her father told the Statesman Journal.
The cars, which cost a total of $200 a piece, can be modified to meet individual children’s needs. One of the kids who received a car, 2-year-old Libbi Cotter, has a congenital heart defect that requires her to be connected to an oxygen tank at all times. Clinicians used fabric fasteners to modify her car to haul the tank behind it.
Two-year-old Libbi, who was adopted from China a year ago, just started crawling two or three months ago, says her father, Mark Cotter.
“She’s obviously really delayed,” he says. “Any milestone is huge. Crawling was huge. Seeing her being able to move around and control where she goes is awesome. I think she’s going to love it.”
The independent mobility will afford children like Libbi the opportunity to learn cause-and-effect, and how to engage with their environments and their peers. Research conducted at the University of Delaware shows that driving the modified cars can improve children’s cognitive, language and social development, Logan says.
“They’re problem-solving,” he adds. “They’re learning the consequences of their movement.”
That’s not to say the journey will be easy for every child. On Wednesday, some kids quickly learned how to get their cars going, while others appeared confused and one squirmed in his seat and whined. Learning to steer the cars will likely take some time.
RELATED VIDEO: Dolly Parton Makes Little Boy with Down Syndrome’s Dreams Come True!
But it seems like the benefit outweighs the cost.
Logan says his mission is to help kids with disabilities explore their world – and even get into some trouble along the way. Trouble-making can provide invaluable learning opportunities, he says.