Design for America students help those living with Down syndrome

EVANSTON, Ill. (WLS) -- How to make lives for people with disabilities easier is usually not a topic taught in engineering schools.

But that's exactly what a group of students from all across the country studied here in Chicago for a weekend to try and solve a problem and generally help society.

This year, the group enlisted some special advisers.

The program is called Design for America. This past weekend, students from 29 different colleges and universities got together at Northwestern University. Every year, they choose a real-life issue and design products and services to help make living with that problem easier. This year, it's Down syndrome.

"I didn't really know anything about Down syndrome before this but I'm always up for a challenge," said Amanda Kibbel, University of Oregon.

"So they are talking with family members, they are talking with individual students, mentors, teachers, friends and family and they're trying to understand how it is they can design solutions - a product, maybe a service - to help them lead better lives and more productive lives," said Elizabeth Gerber, founder, NU Design for America.

One of the people they met with was Bridget Brown, and she knows all about it.

"Well, transportation is one of my nightmares and then isolation is one of them. Being judged, being made fun of because of my disability," Brown said.

Then the students went to work.

"And really the goal is about inclusivity and really removing a lot of the taboos that are still prevalent in our society. So we have everything from games to care packages to mothers who recently found out their child has Down's Syndrome to products that make it easier for people to maintain their hygiene independently," said Sami Nerenberg, associate director, NU Design for America.

One of the ideas was a "hat game."

"Everyone chooses a role and they simply put on a hat and its's something that everyone can contribute toward, and it just kind of levels the playing field. A simple fun game for every child of every ability," Nerenberg said.

Small creations making big impressions.

"My biggest takeaway would probably be that they're just all kids trying to do the same thing that we are, but they're being held back by normal society perceptions about Down syndrome, what you can't do, but really they can do the same with just a little bit of adaption," Kibbel said.

Last year, the Design for America students worked with the American Cancer Society and came up with about 20 ideas; several of those were seriously considered by that organization and manufacturers.

For more information about "Design for America," visit

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