Santa’s Special Workshop Makes Toys More Accessible

Northwestern Medicine
News December 19, 2019
He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice and he’s making special toys for all who are nice.

Jim Dondlinger has become a very special type of Santa for speech, physical and occupational therapists and their patients at Northwestern Medicine Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in Wheaton. Dondlinger volunteers to take children’s toys and modify them for pediatric patients who have disabilities for Marianjoy’s Adapt-A-Toy program.

The toys are called switch adapted toys, and they’ve been modified so that their original electric switches are redirected to a larger switch that is easier for children with special needs to interact with. This often involves installing a larger button to press to activate the toy.

Jim Dondlinger and his grandkids modify toys for children with physical challengesDondlinger, who was president and CEO of Auto Truck Group in Bartlett for 35 years, first partnered with Marianjoy in the fall of 2018 to assist with their GoBabyGo program. GoBabyGo, which was founded by a researcher at University of Delaware, equips differently abled children with modified battery-powered cars so that they can increase independence and improve social development.

“I met with the team at Marianjoy about their wish list and what they were looking to do with small vehicles for GoBabyGo, took that back to my team at Auto Truck, and we said we’ll do it,” Dondlinger said. “After that, the team contacted us to talk about other things they wanted to do and they brought up adaptive toys.”

From there, Dondlinger and two other colleagues at Auto Truck Group were able to use their engineering skills and expertise to modify toys. They began to take apart various children’s toys and examine them to see how they could rewire or adapt them. In some instances, entire circuit boards needed to be redesigned. After a lot of play and experimentation of their own, his team was able to provide about 25 toys for Marianjoy therapists to introduce to patients and their families this holiday season.

“The concept is removing barriers to exploring and playing as a child would typically do,” said Virginia Girten, physical therapist at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital. “That moment the child realizes they’re the one who is making the toy work, and not mom or dad playing for them – those are my favorite moments, when they know they were the one who did it.”

The adapted toys can help a wide array of patients play and learn as independently as possible in a way that helps develop other skills, such as writing or handling utensils. The toys are beneficial not only to those going through occupational therapy, but also speech therapy.

“Speech and language adapted toys have more sounds, rhythms, sequences and music,” Girten said. “For occupational therapy, the elements of the toy are to progress the use of your hand and doing different motions to activate the toy.”

This could involve using one or two hands or helping the hands and eyes work together to make the toy work. The one thing all the toys have in common is that they work on multiple types of skills at once.

“I think the team at Marianjoy has been great to work with because they’ve thrown out a lot of innovative ideas for things that make their children and the children they work with enjoy life better,” Dondlinger said. “They’ve challenged us and asked if we can do this, and we’ve always said yeah, we can do it. We don’t always get the work perfect, and sometimes the process can be a little painful, but it works.”

Both Dondlinger and Girten have big dreams about expanding Adapt-A-Toy long term. Girten said she would love to have an on-site laboratory that would provide therapists, the community and parents to interact and focus on removing barriers to play.

“We’d love to have a place where a parent can go and say, ‘My child loves this toy but I have to move it for them or bring it to them’ and then ask what we can do to remove the barriers for the child to access the toy,” Girten said.

Dondlinger hopes to build out a collection of adapted toys to allow more children with disabilities more enjoyment and independence during play. The program also has the potential to expand to broader community education, such as STEM.

“We’ve had people from high schools and colleges, and even scouting organizations who know they want to create change in the world hear about this and want to be part of it, and the connection there is really fun,” Girten said.

Marianjoy sees children with a variety of conditions, including cerebral palsy, spinal cord injury and autism spectrum disorders. For more information visit

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