Use It or Lose It! Upcycling Assistive Technology (AT)

Use it or Lose it! Upcycling ATUse It or Lose It! Upcycling Assistive Technology (AT)

by Molly Shannon, OTR/L, ATP,

on the ATandOT Blog 



In this blog post we will explore imaginative assistive technology (AT) upcycling ideas that you can employ for unused or under-utilized AT and provide fun, functional engagement for students and persons with various disabilities.  In other words, we will emphasize “what’s old is new again,” sometimes with a twist.  First, let’s discuss the important distinction between the terms recycling and upcycling, as well as ways in which AT recycling is promoted on a national basis through a variety of programs and initiatives.

Obviously, both upcycling and recycling are good for the environment.  “Reuse, reduce, and recycle” are the basic tenets of recycling outlined on the EPA website.  Recycling of products has been referred to as “down-cycling” while “upcycling” means breathing new life into products.  Upcycling is known as “creative reuse” and is the process of transforming unwanted or unused products into items that are used in a valuable manner.  While there is a great deal of information in the public domain about recycling in general and some available regarding the recycling of general technology, there is less awareness of how to upcycle assistive technology.


Pass It On ShannonThe national focus for support and reuse of AT is spearheaded through the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS).   This department has supported research in AT and has made strides to make AT more available to people with disabilities.  OSERS supports a number of activities to encourage and support AT reuse under the Assistive Technology Act and is now taking the lead to promote and encourage AT reuse through grants to state agencies, non-profit organizations, and other entities.  OSERS also funds a national coordination agency, the Pass It On Center, to provide technical assistance and networking opportunities. (See for more information.)

State-run AT recycling programs typically include a variety of options.  These include device exchange programs that involve a seller and a buyer who are connected via classified ads of sorts; device recycling programs that are handled through organizations that accept donated AT items, store the products, and then provide them to new owners; or device refurbishment programs, which are similar to device recycling, except that these programs also fix or customize used AT devices before providing them to new users.  I am encouraging this concept of upcycling of AT which refers to a more localized method of reuse of AT equipment on a smaller level in a school, hospital, community, or rehab setting.


AT Upcycling on a More Local Level:

Have you ever been digging in a closet at work and found a treasure trove of unused or older low-tech augmentative communication devices, switches, software, and other various AT?  Or did you find old touch screens on a bottom shelf under the computer desk?  Have you been appalled when you heard that 25 portable word processors were sent off to surplus without notifying the Special Education department or occupational therapy (OT) department head?  Well, I am sure we all have been there and done this in our various work settings. With funding being so limited across the board in all areas of AT in the schools, hospitals, assisted living centers, and rehab facilities, it makes sense to get these products out, dust them off, check the batteries, find the cables or chargers, get creative with finding resources for their use, and start upcycling them in new ways.

Three Key Reasons to Promote Upcycling AT at Your Location or Center:

  1. It is environmentally sound:  AT upcycling embraces the basics of reuse, reduce, and recycling which are all good for the environment.
  2. It makes financial sense:  It is fiscally sound to reuse older pieces of technology if they are still in working order. Often agencies, schools, and families cannot afford the newest types of AT as they can be quite expensive and upcycled AT can present significant savings.  Another example of this concept is continuing to use older versions of any kind of technology or software if they are in good condition and meeting the needs of a client or program. To illustrate this concept, let’s consider the Ablenet Powerlink 4.  While it is the newest version of this environmental control device that can be used in a classroom or community setting, the older versions are sturdy and reliable products and frequently continue to work well to meet client needs. Don’t throw away or surplus the older AT and technology!  Use it!
  3. It is a way to blend old and new technologies:  Another way to upcycle AT is to pair older and newer technologies.  When brainstorming for devices to use with a Smartboard activity such as Brain Breaks, you can find ways of pairing devices, such as an All-Turn-It-Spinner (that might be sitting in a closet
    All Turn It Spinner
    All-Turn-It-Spinner by AbleNet

    unused) with a switch for a student with multiple disabilities (or his peers without disabilities) in a classroom. The student with a physical disability gets to randomly choose the next exercise or movement for the entire class to perform by pressing the switch using the All Turn It Spinner.  This allows the student to actively participate in his or her class activity by getting to “choose” the random Brain Break for the entire class to perform. The same principle applies to choosing classroom chores or selecting which YouTube video to watch for reading.

It is clear that upcycling or recycling assistive technology  are both environmentally and fiscally sound and that there are similarities between each concept.  In Part 2 of this blog post,  “Use It or Lose It:  Upcycling AT,” we will explore ways in which you can practice assistive technology upcycling on a local level in your educational, community, or rehabilitation setting.


Molly Shannon, OTR/L, ATPMolly Shannon, OTR/L, AT , is an occupational Therapist with 33 years’ experience and  currently working in the public schools as a school-based Occupational Therapist in NC. She has specialized in the provision of Assistive Technology for 29 of those years and is RESNA certified as an Assistive Technology Professional. In addition, Molly is an Adjunct Professor of Occupational Therapy at Cabarrus College of Health Sciences in the Master’s Program teaching Therapeutic Adaptations/Assistive Technology in OT. She loves to present and train others in Assistive Technology and has been a national-level conference presenter since 1989.  She has worked with clients of all ages and with a wide range of disabilities in public/private school settings, non-profit educational/therapeutic agencies, outpatient/inpatient rehabilitation, and with the North Carolina Assistive Technology Program.  You can connect with Molly on Twitter sitePinterest Boards, or her ATandOT Facebook page.

Disclaimer: The information shared on the Go-To-For-OT Blog or affiliated Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest sites, and shared on social or public media or as links on other sites is for general informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for sound professional medical advice or evaluation and care from your physician/medical team or any other qualified health care providers. Therefore, the authors and administrator of these posts take no responsibility for any liability, loss, or risk taken by individuals as a result of applying the ideas or resources.  

Title photo is the property of the author and should not be used without her expressed permission.  Photos that include a link to an originating site are the property of that site and their use should include the link provided.

Use It or Lose It! Upcycling Assistive Technology (AT)

5 thoughts on “Use It or Lose It! Upcycling Assistive Technology (AT)

  1. Ashley says:

    This year some of my teachers were looking for a no frills approach to typing for students who seemed to be distracted by all the features of laptops, netbooks or ipads. I brought out the old alphasmarts and started using them again. The response was tremendous.

    Liked by 1 person

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