Alumna Alex Truesdell (BA ’79, M.Ed. ’98) is a visionary who creates low-cost life-changing adaptations
Tuesday, December 22, 2015
Alex Truesdell works with Austin Kellenberger as he learns to use his custom-made chair, tray and easel. Image courtesy of the Adaptive Design Association.
As founding director of the Adaptive Design Association (ADA), she has helped thousands of teachers, therapists and parents create child-specific alterations to furniture, equipment and spaces that make them more useable, all with common and affordable materials, such as corrugated cardboard and glue.
“Simple ideas are needed everywhere, and putting it all together is where we come in,” she says. “I think we owe it to everyone to make sure their potential is realized.”
For decades, she has continuously challenged assumptions about disabilities, and worked to eliminate limitations with inventive user-inspired adaptations – whether it is a set of cardboard stairs to help a child climb to the sink, or a tall light to make a young woman’s motorized wheelchair more visible so she can safely navigate city crosswalks and pedestrians.
“We have a society full of people who love to make and design things, and there are people in desperate need,” she says. “In a world where we can make skyscrapers and iPads, we can absolutely adapt cafeteria benches and make adaptive paint tables.”
Now, the MacArthur Foundation has recognized Truesdell’s important work with one of the most prestigious honors in the United States: a 2015 MacArthur Fellowship, which carries an award of $625,000, known as a “genius” grant. She is among only 24 people nationwide selected for this year’s fellowship, which is bestowed upon those who demonstrate exceptional creativity and the “prospect for still more in the future.”
“I’m still at a loss for words,” she says. “It knocks you over in the most wonderful way, and instantly opens up potential and rearranges everything.”
Truesdell began pursuing this passion four decades ago, when she journeyed across the country from Oregon to study special education at Lesley.
Alex Truesdell's team builds adaptations with affordable materials, such as corrugated cardboard and glue. Image courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
“I’ve always thought beyond inclusion: children with disabilities must be fully engaged and expected to be as great a contributor as any other person,” says Truesdell. “That climate was already there at Lesley.”
She earned her bachelor’s degree in 1979 and taught during her senior year practicum at the Perkins School for the Blind. The placement led to a permanent position at Perkins, where she eventually founded the school’s Assistive Device Center and launched the innovative work for which she would eventually garner MacArthur acclaim.
“I was working in early intervention at Perkins and the idea of adapting was essential so that infants and toddlers could play and flourish,” she recalls.
Around that time, her aunt had a spinal cord injury and lost the use of her hands, which further fueled her commitment to finding creative adaptations, whether it was helping her aunt crack an egg or turn the stove knob.
“I realized I could use tools, I could make things,” she recalls. “When there’s a will, there’s a way. You just need a place where you can take an idea and have the opportunity to make things.”
She returned to Lesley and earned a master’s degree in 1998 in curriculum and instruction with a specialization and conflict resolution and peaceable schools, and she won a small start-up grant to take the idea of what she was doing at Perkins and expand on it.
“Going back to Lesley was very important in bringing people together to make that happen,” she says.
At first, the startup was housed in New York at a work reentry program for women who had been on parole or probation.
“The work was an alternative to incarceration, so it provided paid internships and the pride of doing something meaningful,” she says.
When the host organization left the project in 2001, Truesdell established the Adaptive Design Association as a nonprofit association.
“I don’t think we knew the height of the mountain we were about to climb, but I knew that the mission mattered,” she reflects. “It is a really huge undertaking to start a business with very little money, and it took a very long time to get a break.”
Truesdell is hopeful that the MacArthur recognition will raise awareness not only about the plight of people with disabilities across the world, but that solutions to the problem are at hand.
“UNICEF looked at the state of the world’s children with disabilities in 2013 and reported they are still largely uneducated, homebound, potentially abused or neglected, underserved and also undercounted,” she says. “This is a really big question for the human family: What are we doing?”
Truesdell envisions workshops in schools and therapeutic centers everywhere, where adaptive designs are created on the spot.
“Hopefully the chapter we are beginning now makes it clear that, ‘This is important and really possible,’” she says.
She hopes her organization serves as a model for effective, local responses to children’s needs and inspires a lot of replication.
“If there is a school where someone needs something modified, they shouldn’t think mail order. It should be done where they know the child, and it’s a shared undertaking.”
For Truesdell, she couldn’t dream of a more fulfilling career.
“People with disabilities are the largest minority, and the most diverse minority, and probably the most potentially rich in terms of their contributions,” she says. “So this is the most fun thing to do: to make something that helps someone be all they can be.”
See photos from Alex Truesdell's campus visit
‘Genius grant’ recipient Alex Truesdell returns to Lesley with a message
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