Debbi Nelson loves to cook. Even a stroke she suffered in April has not stopped her from making meals for her family. Nelson, 46, is one of millions of Americans with disabilities who have learned techniques for maneuvering in a kitchen.

  Debbi Nelson loves to cook. Even a stroke she suffered in April has not stopped her from making meals for her family.   “My left side is weak; I can’t stand for long periods of time or pick up heavy things. There are a lot of things I can’t do anymore, but there are ways to get around the obstacles,” said the Springfield woman.   Nelson, 46, is one of millions of Americans with disabilities who have learned techniques for maneuvering in a kitchen. Whether mental or physical, disabilities can involve problems with balance, coordination, mobility, grip, sight, hearing, weakness, attention and memory. And those can lead to challenges in a kitchen, where tools and equipment may be hot, sharp or out-of-reach.   For some, function can be improved with an adaptive device — such as a jar opener, extra-loud oven timer or non-skid counter mat to secure bowls. For others, alternative ways of moving or handling a task make it safer to cook.   “A lot of people give up because it’s so much work and it’s easier not to do it. They’ll say, ‘I’m in a wheelchair so I can’t cook,’” said Lisa Cline, an occupational therapist with Memorial Medical Center.   Nelson, a former factory worker at Bunn-O-Matic, has figured out a few methods that help her prepare food.   When there’s a lot of chopping to do, she takes the food and a knife into her living room, where she can sit comfortably and cut on a sturdy table.   In addition, she relies on her three slow cookers. “I use them all the time for things like roasts, meatballs, barbecue, enchiladas and soup. It lets me scoop the food out, instead of transporting a big, heavy pot,” Nelson said.   And she cooks in large quantities. “I’ll throw plain chicken breasts or meatballs in the crockpot and cook them, then freeze them in bags. That way, I have them ready to go.”   At a recent workshop sponsored by Memorial Medical Center, Nelson saw a can opener that can be operated with just one hand.   “When I make manicotti, I open cans of tomato sauce and tomato paste. It’s very difficult for me to open cans. I want that can opener now,” she said, vowing to buy one the next day.   Sonali Bhole, a physical therapist and program coordinator for the stroke team at Memorial’s Regional Rehabilitation Center, said people with disabilities should be encouraged to continue activities they enjoy.   “It starts at home. Let them do as much as they can. It increases confidence.”   As a teaching tool, Bhole adapted a wooden cutting board by nailing in five stainless steel nails from the bottom. The nails act as a grip for hard vegetables, such as potatoes and carrots, securing them for slicing.   Homemade adaptive devices can save money for people who have many medical expenses.   “Before I started working with stroke survivors, I didn’t even think someone wouldn’t be able to afford $20,” Bhole said. “But a lot of the people I work with have lost their jobs.”   The Illinois Assistive Technology Program, based in Springfield, is a not-for-profit agency that helps people with disabilities obtain and use adaptive devices, including those for the kitchen. For more information, go to   Barbara Williams of Springfield was at the workshop with her husband, Dean. She had suffered a stroke just two weeks earlier, after returning home from a California vacation.   “I’ve got a lot to learn,” she said as she rolled her chair to stations at the workshop set up to demonstrate adaptive devices. “I want to go home and be the best that I can.”   Cline encourages people with disabilities to discuss limitations with their medical therapists.   “A lot of times, the thing they can’t do can be resolved with a simple adaptation.”   Nelson echoes that sentiment.   “Don’t give up. You will think of a way to do it. If you don’t, talk to someone who may have an answer.”   This recipe for a filled holiday cake, from the dietitians at Memorial Medical Center, is ideal for calorie-restricted diets. Each large piece has 290 calories and 9 grams of fat.     Pumpkin Suzi-Q Cake   1 box spice or carrot cake mix 2 (15-ounce) cans solid pumpkin 1 (8-ounce) package softened cream cheese, low-fat or fat-free 1 cup powdered sugar 1/2 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice 1 (8-ounce) thawed container whipped topping, sugar-free, light or fat-free   Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 13-by-9-inch pan with cooking spray. Mix the cake mix with 1 can of the canned pumpkin in a large bowl until well blended. (Batter will be very thick.) Pour mixture into pan and bake about 12-15 minutes, or until toothpick in center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes and turn out onto wire rack. Cool completely.   For the filling, beat cream cheese until creamy in small bowl with electric mixer on medium speed. Add powdered sugar, half of the second can of pumpkin and the pumpkin pie spice, blending all ingredients well. (Reserve the unused half-can of pumpkin for another use.) Stir in the whipped topping.   Cut cake lengthwise into two halves. Spread filling on the bottom layer and top with the other half. Store in refrigerator.   Note: Filling may be used as an icing on top instead of spread in the middle. Cake can be made in two round pans for a layer cake, or the recipe can be used for muffins.   Makes 12 servings.   Kathryn Rem can be reached at