Design Meets Disability

RA Guy Adventures of RA Guy

Book Cover Design Meets DisabilityRheumatoid Arthritis Guy recently came across what seems to be a wonderful book that combines the topics of design and disability. (I must admit that I have not yet read the book , but I hope to soon…) These are two of my biggest areas of personal interest, so I am quite eager to get my hands on a copy of this book.

Design Meets Disability, by Graham Pullin, was published last month by MIT Press. The book explores the potential for innovation that still exists when designing products to enhance the daily lives of people living with disabilities.

Eyeglasses have been transformed from medical necessity to fashion accessory. This revolution has come about through embracing the design culture of the fashion industry. Why shouldn’t design sensibilities also be applied to hearing aids, prosthetic limbs, and communication aids? In return, disability can provoke radical new directions in mainstream design. Charles and Ray Eames’s iconic furniture was inspired by a molded plywood leg splint that they designed for injured and disabled servicemen. Designers today could be similarly inspired by disability.

In Design Meets Disability, Graham Pullin shows us how design and disability can inspire each other. In the Eameses’ work there was a healthy tension between cut-to-the-chase problem solving and more playful explorations. Pullin offers examples of how design can meet disability today. Why, he asks, shouldn’t hearing aids be as fashionable as eyewear? What new forms of braille signage might proliferate if designers kept both sighted and visually impaired people in mind? Can simple designs avoid the need for complicated accessibility features? Can such emerging design methods as “experience prototyping” and “critical design” complement clinical trials?

Pullin also presents a series of interviews with leading designers about specific disability design projects, including stepstools for people with restricted growth, prosthetic legs (and whether they can be both honest and beautifully designed), and text-to-speech technology with tone of voice. When design meets disability, the diversity of complementary, even contradictory, approaches can enrich each field.

A few days ago, a young guy my age passed me on the sidewalk as I was getting out of a taxi. He had the coolest set of forearm crutches that I had ever seen!!! As I pulled my own set of (now boring) crutches out of the back seat, I continued to stare at his crutches as he walked down the block. (Talk about crutch envy!)

Only as he turned the corner did I notice that this young man had only one leg.

Almost immediately, I felt a slight tinge of guilt pass over me. Was it okay for me to be envious of this young man’s crutches?

So it was with some relief, and much happiness, that this morning I saw a video of athlete, actor, and activist Aimee Mullins talking about her collection of prosthetic legs. She wants them to be objects of art. (She even refers to some of her prosthetic legs “wearable sculpture”, which they definitely are!) She wants people to look at her prosthetic legs.

[YouTube video]

“A prosthetic limb doesn’t represent the need to replace loss anymore. It can stand as a symbol that the wearer has the power to create whatever it is they want to create in that space, so people that society once considered to be disabled can now become the architects of their own identities – an indeed continue to change those identities – by designing their bodies from a place of empowerment.”

This video is definitely worth watching – if only to see the part midway through – where Ms. Mullins asks the audience what exactly is a disability? “I mean – people – Pamela Anderson has more prosthetic in her body that I do, and nobody calls her disabled.” (Her words, not mine!)

In closing, I would like to ask people to take a look at Walking Wall by artist Harriet Sanderson. This permanent art installation is located in an orthopedic clinic in Seattle, and is comprised of hundreds of ash wood walking canes. This installation is beautiful both as a visual object and as a example of design meeting disability.

Stay tuned…for the next adventure of Rheumatoid Arthritis Guy!