3D Printing: A Powerful Tool for the Disabilities Community

3D Printing

Innovations in 3D printing are improving life for many people with disabilities.

But just what is 3D printing? The Oxford Dictionary defines it as such: “The action or process of making a physical object from a three-dimensional digital model, typically by laying down many thin layers of a material in succession.”

Inexpensive, efficient and environmentally responsible, 3D printing is popular with large corporations as well as “makers” (hobbyists) who create all sorts of objects on their home printers. In fact, many of the most innovative 3D printed inventions are being hatched by home 3D-printing enthusiasts.

Seventeen-year-old Sam Suchin of Baltimore, Maryland, first learned about 3D printing when he was just 12 or 13. “I was fascinated by the fact you could have a mini-factory in your room,” says Sam. “It was like sci-fi or ‘Star Wars!’”

Sam saved up his money and purchased a basic 3D printer but was disappointed with its capabilities. When he saw an ad for the Envision the Future Design Challenge, which awarded the winning entry a high-quality 3D printer, Sam decided to enter. His entry, a Braille map of the United States for the visually impaired, won the Under-18 category of the contest.

With his new printer, Sam initiated a new project — printing prosthetic arms with Enabling the Future, a contest sponsor. “I was paired with a 9-year-old girl,” he recalls. “I got photos and measurements and was able to make an arm that fit her. It was incredible! I just wanted to keep doing it!”

Sam founded Hope3D, an online platform that crowdsources makers around the world who contribute 3D printed parts for various projects. His biggest so far? Building a 3D-printed artificial coral reef that is currently submerged in a marine reserve in Belize. Sam is always looking for ideas for new crowdsourced products that will help others. Ideas can be submitted at www.Hope3D.org.

Makers Making Change is another online platform that connects makers to people with accessibility challenges. Founded in 2012, by the Canadian nonprofit the Neil Squire Society, Makers Making Change is “committed to creating an international community of makers who support people with disabilities within their communities by creating accessibility solutions.” Products range from an assistive paint tube opener to a shoulder rest for a mobile phone, to a dice spinner and a fork and spoon support.

Those looking for product designs can find them in the nonprofit’s extensive library, where they are free to download designs for home use. Website visitors are encouraged to make suggestions for new products.

Corporations such as Ikea are also getting on the 3D-printing bandwagon. In 2019, Ikea Israel partnered with nonprofits Milbat and Access Israel to develop ThisAbles, 3D-printed accessories to adapt Ikea furniture and housewares. According to Dami Lee writing for The Verge, “There are 13 designs available. They slip over Ikea furniture and accessories to turn a small button into a giant one or to lift a couch a couple of inches from the ground to help make getting up a little easier. Installation methods for all of the 3D modifications are demonstrated on Ikea Israel’s YouTube page, showing how a small tweak can make a huge difference for people with disabilities.” Ikea has made many of its designs downloadable for home printing and product ideas are welcome!