Investigating the implications of 3D printing in special education

Erin Buehler, Niara Comrie, Megan Hofmann, Samantha McDonald, Amy Hurst

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Consumer-grade digital fabrication such as 3D printing is on the rise, and we believe it can be leveraged to great benefit in special education. Although 3D printing is infiltrating mainstream education, little research has explored 3D printing in the context of students with special support needs. We describe our studies on this topic and the resulting contributions. We initially conducted a formative study exploring the use of 3D printing at three locations serving populations with varying ability, including individuals with cognitive, motor, and visual impairments. We found that 3D design and printing perform three functions in special education: (1) STEM engagement, (2) creation of educational aids for accessible curriculum content, and (3) making custom adaptive devices. As part of our formative work, we also discussed a case study in the codesign of an assistive hand grip created with occupational therapists at one of our investigation sites. This work inspired further studies on the creation of adaptive devices using 3D printers. We identified the needs and constraints of these therapists and found implications for a specialized 3D modeling tool to support their use of 3D printers. We developed GripFab, 3D modeling software based on feedback from therapists, and used it to explore the feasibility of in-house 3D object designs in support of accessibility. Our contributions include case studies at three special education sites and discussion of obstacles to efficient 3D printing in this context. We have extended these contributions with a more in-depth look at the stakeholders and findings from GripFab studies. We have expanded our discussion to include suggestions for researchers in this space, in addition to refined suggestions from our earlier work for technologists creating 3D modeling and printing tools, therapists seeking to leverage 3D printers, and educators and administrators looking to implement these design tools in special education environments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number2870640
JournalACM Transactions on Accessible Computing
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2016


  • 3D printing
  • Assistive technology
  • Children
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Developmental disability
  • Digital fabrication
  • Rapid prototyping
  • Special education
  • Visual impairment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Human-Computer Interaction
  • Computer Science Applications


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