From The New York Times


December 24, 2006


INVENTIONS; Toys for Disabled, Step 1: What Can a Child Still Do?




IT was a busy morning at the John A. Coleman School, a rehabilitation center for children with disabilities. Waiting to greet them in the brightly lighted rotunda was Santa Claus, courtesy of the White Plains Fire Department. Also stopping by was Dr. Steven E. Kanor. The overlap was unintentional, yet somehow fitting. Both visitors shared an interest -- and expertise -- in toys.


Dr. Kanor is the founder and president of Enabling Devices, a company in Hastings-on-Hudson that designs toys and learning devices for children with a range of special needs, including cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and even quadriplegia.


Using his background as a biomedical engineer, Dr. Kanor, 71, has come up with hundreds of inventions. Some are as simple as lengthening a handle on a game so a child with low muscle tone has an easier grasp. Others are as complicated as creating a mechanical switch that can be activated with the blink of an eye.


Dr. Kanor created his eye-blink switch for an 8-year-old boy who was paralyzed from the neck down in a car accident. With the invention, the boy can control devices placed before him and communicate with family and friends.


''What we're dealing with are children who may not have the use of arms or legs, who may not be able to see, to hear or even move,'' Dr. Kanor said in a recent interview in his office in Hastings. ''But we start with what the child has left, and focus on what we can do.''


The number of children with disabilities is growing in the country, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which estimates that there are at least nine million children with some form of physical or mental disability. That number has grown in the last decade, the academy says, in part because of the increased survival rate of premature babies.


There are signs that toy manufacturers are acknowledging this trend; the New York-based Toy Industry Association, for example, has published a brochure, ''Let's Play: A Guide to Toys for Children With Special Needs,'' which highlights toys from the general market that may be appropriate for children with disabilities. But what makes Dr. Kanor's company unusual is that its entire product line is designed to address the needs of children living with severe impairment.


With his congenial air, Dr. Kanor can seem more absent-minded professor than business maverick. Still, Enabling Devices has shown steady growth since he founded it almost 30 years ago. The company projects revenues of $6 million this fiscal year, and sells approximately 100,000 toys and devices each year to schools, institutions and individuals worldwide, according to Elizabeth Bell, the marketing director.


One of its biggest clients is the Coleman School, part of the Children's Rehabilitation Center in White Plains. Many of the 121 children at the center have multiple disabilities, including Down syndrome, spina bifida and cerebral palsy.


On a recent morning, students age 3 to 5 played with Dr. Kanor's toys in the clean, brightly colored classrooms. One 3-year-old wearing leg braces and propped against a cushion watched as his teaching assistant ran her fingers across a Razzle Dazzle Bead Chain Curtain, which makes a musical sound when manipulated.


Casey Maguire, from Rye, has been at the school for two years. Casey, a 5-year-old with holoprosencephaly, a rare disorder in which the fetal brain does not develop normally, cannot walk or talk. He enjoys playing with a Penguin Track that allows him to manipulate the movement of toy penguins by pressing a specially designed musical switch.


''There is simply no one else out there making these kinds of toys,'' said Casey's mother, Veronica Maguire, 43, who works in investment advising. ''Dr. Kanor is one of the few people who design toys that make sense for children like Casey.''


Dr. Kanor, who has three grown children, insists he entered the toy-design field by happenstance. Assigned to work with children with cerebral palsy early in his career, he cobbled together some toys to encourage them to react. Their response improved, and the lab he was working for asked him to create more toys, which he did after hours in his basement.


Thirty years after he struck out on his own, he is still tinkering, although now with the help of 70 employees, who at this time of year, Ms. Bell said, receive about 50 calls a day from families searching for toys for the holidays.


''Children are children,'' Dr. Kanor said. ''They all need to play.''



Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company