The Creative and Constructive Use of Cardboard in Adaptive Design

Cardboard texture

Not every person is built the same, so why is most furniture?  Back in 1981, Alex Truesdell would learn that lesson, and make, with the power of cardboard, extraordinary steps to alter that mindset. She would create furniture and tools for people with disabilities to easily adapt to their environments, all over the world.

Truesdell was an early childhood teacher at the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston when two people, her Aunt Lynn, who lost the use of her fingers and thumbs from a spinal cord injury, and Erin, a young infant with severe disabilities, would lead her on a 30-year journey as an adaptive designer and fabricator, using cardboard to create tools and furniture that enable children with disabilities to participate more actively at home and in the world.

Truesdell set up a workshop in her basement to build adaptations for children with disabilities. Eventually she founded the Adaptive Design Association (ADA) in 2001. Along with its mission to engage everyone, novice to expert, in “building custom adaptations, discovering untapped potential, and nurturing communities that thrive with diversity.”

What first led her to using cardboard in adaptive design was the book The Further Adventures of Cardboard Carpentry: Son of a Cardboard Carpentry by George Cope and Phylis Morrison. This was a time before Amazon and online shopping and according to a 2014 article in The New York Times, when someone mentioned the book was available in Boston - at the time Truesdale was working with blind children in Maine – Truesdell hit the road immediately. “I was a lunatic driving from Bangor to Boston,” Truesdell said.

ADA embraces six principles of fabrication. They create furniture and tools that are “safe, needed, wanted by the user and the team, attractive, durable and made with materials that are eco-responsible, locally available, and at low or no cost.” And cardboard fits those principles perfectly. More specifically, the triple-ply cardboard that is strong enough to support hundreds of pounds, durable enough to uphold through daily use and lightweight enough that it is easy to transport.

Among the many adaptations created by ADA fabrications that assist in academics, daily living, recreation and mobility are reading easels, dining inserts, floor sitters and convertible rockers. And their ability to share these fabrications gone global.

Based in New York, Adaptive Design also does workshops and classes, teaching others from across the country and around the world how to construct these adaptive fabrications from cardboard. And because cardboard is also a material that is easily available worldwide it is the perfect material for their global outreach. As Truesdell told PBS’s NewsHour, “We try to use methods here that could be used anywhere in the world. So, any technique, anything we make, the materials we use, we want other people to see what we do and copy it. We really are trying to supply the movement, so that we would inspire imitation, cooperation, and collaboration throughout.”

One such success story is Made4Me furniture, founded by Jim McAgy and based in Wake Forest, North Carolina. According to an article in Raleigh’s The News & Observer, McAgy, who had a furniture making background, was looking for his next entrepreneurial opportunity when his sister-in-law suggested the Adaptive Design Association and their workshops. Within four months McAgy had the non-profit Made4Me up and running and as he told The News & Observer, “we have been nonstop ever since.”

So from New York City to Wake Forest to as far as Ecuador and Guatamala, Adaptive Design Associations’ cardboard fabrications and inspirations continue to improve the lives of people with disabilities around the world, one crafted piece at a time.