Products for people with disabilities were once uninspired. Not anymore. – Michael Kimmelman, New York Times
Mobility devices and other products made for people with different physical, cognitive, and sensory abilities have historically been ugly, feebly designed, and stigmatizing. These products are often designed by engineers without the input of consumers living with disabilities who use them.
The “Access+Ability” exhibition at the Smithsonian Design Museum, organized by Cara McCarty and Rochelle Steiner, makes plain why design matters for mobility devices.
There has been a surge of design with and by people with a wide range of physical, cognitive, and sensory abilities. Fueled by advances in research, technology, and fabrication, this proliferation of functional, life-enhancing products is creating unprecedented access in homes, schools, workplaces, and the world at large. Access+Ability features over 70 innovative designs developed in the last decade. From low-tech products that assist with daily routines to the newest technologies, the exhibition explores how users and designers are expanding and adapting accessible products and solutions in ways previously unimaginable.
The Access+Ability exhibit demonstrates a shift in the way we think about designing with diversity and inclusion in mind. With approximately 1 in 7 adults having a disability in Canada, there’s merit in investing time and effort into designs that make specialty items easier to use–not to mention fun, cool, and beautiful. Products that have a “medical” aesthetic carry stigma – the move to more “de-medicalized” devices would help to address this.
RAH to those who can visit the Smithsonian Design Museum to see the show. I haven’t seen it in person yet but making a plan to get there before it closes on September 3rd, 2018.
This wheelchair navigates rough, unpaved, and uneven terrain, specifically in the developing world where the ground may be mud or sand. The three rather than four wheels provide extra Access+Ability stability when pushing, propelling, and even tipping around obstacles.
Taking a ride with some of my favorite passengers – my sis, mother-in-law and partner
Transportation challenges are rooted in a variety of social and political environments.
Take for example, the need for safe and reliable transportation for students in Detroit to get to after-school tutoring and education programming (offered by the nonprofit learning hub 826 Michigan).
Regardless of the ‘problem,’ to my mind innovation and creativity and FUN are the ‘best practices’ for addressing them.
For example, check out Dave Eggers solution – with fabrication support from Juan Martinez and the help of metal artist Ben Wolf and the San Francisco art production shop Gizmo, Eggers created a small herd of animal-inspired vehicles. Focussing on the intersection of transportation and education to build awareness AND present solutions to these challenges the herd was recently on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) where I had a chance to try them out.
These mobility devices are beautifully crafted with the safety of students in mind. But what is best about them, of course, is how fun they are! Can you imagine how unbelievably cool and exciting it would be to ride to an after school education program in this thing?
This project reminds me of the Fun Theory. Believing that the easiest way to change things is by making it simple and fun, Volkswagen’s Fun Theory has inspired some amazing designs like the Piano Stairs. It’s a classic and one of my personal favorites!
Eggers’ animal-inspired vehicles, the Piano Stairs and other innovations like these are great examples of how “fun” can be used to address physical and social concerns.
Last fall I attended ArtPrize, a supercool festival that turns three square miles of downtown Grand Rapids into a giant gallery of art. My fav was a collaborative DisArt – SiTE:LAB exhibit (see photos below).
DisArt and SiTE:LAB are working together to create art experiences that transcend normal expectations of audience, space, and design. HYBRID STRUCTURES is an invitation to see and experience reality differently. As an experiment of accessibility and inclusion, the ramp demonstrates that art has a powerful role to play in the way we view abilities and disabilities of all types. It is our hope that the experience of being on top of HYBRID STRUCTURES transforms access itself into an art form by celebrating architecture that welcomes all users.
– Curatorial Statement
I followed up my visit with some more research on DisArt. Their aim is to change perceptions about disability (and accessibility) through art. They’re driven by the belief that communities are stronger when they intentionally include and recognize the gifts and talents of persons living with disabilities, and their artistic projects help increase the visibility of people with disabilities.
What’s particularly cool about this ramp is the way that it gets transformed into the stage for SiTE:LAB’s ELEVATE: A DisArt Fashion Show. This fashion show pushes expectations of design and fashion in hopes of redefining sentiments of style, access, and bodies. It celebrates disability, inclusivity, movement, and art. Check out the highlights from 2016 (which I sadly missed seeing in person)! It’s awesome!
Whether you’ve got a bike, scooter, walker or wheelchair, duct tape is a seriously cheap and fast way to personalize any ride. No longer limited to that traditional grey, this strong adhesive product now comes in like a bazillion varieties of colours and sizes!
Duck Tape has leveraged the versatility of their brand to meet the needs of a growing number of DIY’s (do-it-yourselfers). They have a massive selection for people to choose from for repairs, crafts, labeling and decorating purposes. You can buy transparent tints, mini-rolls, sheets, and specialty duct tape—even scented and glow-in-the-dark products now exist!
Using duct tape as a tool for personalization is both accessible and affordable and the fact that is so durable and waterproof is an added bonus. I recently came across these sweet rides that were decorated with duct tape – check them out!
I pulled up beside this ride the other day and she explained her use of Duck Tape: “I started by fixing my seat and then loved it so much just kept taping! Hides the rust too!”
Saw this camouflage scooter in front of me at the border. The guy inside told me through his open window that he thinks the tape is a great improvement “I’ve always been an outdoor guy.”
“I don’t dress to be stared at. I dress for myself.” – Iris Apfel
Meet Iris Apfel.
Iris is a highly successful and eccentric 94-year-young American businesswoman, interior designer, and fashion icon who has recently gained celebrity fame. Iris is also the founder of Old World Weavers, a textile company that she launched with her late husband Carl Apfel. Through their textile business, they travelled around the world and participated in unique design restoration processes, including work on the White House for several presidents. Her bold approach to layering big jewelry and her oversized round glasses make a lasting iconic impression that landed her a star role in a documentary by Albert Maysles about her incredible life and career.
I recently watched this delightful documentary – Iris – which included several segments of Iris using mobility devices including a cane, walker and wheelchair.
What struck me immediately when viewing these segments was the stark contrast between Iris’s ‘over the top’ accessorizing – on herself, her house and even her husband and the mobility aids that were left completely untouched! Not a splash of colour, not a jewel or bead, nothing… I have to admit I was disappointed… and couldn’t help thinking, “REALLY?! IRIS?!! You of all the people would have the know how to “pimp your ride”!
Unconsidered OR Unacceptable?
I believe one of two things are going on here. Either,
- These devices are ‘unconsidered’ – i.e., it doesn’t occur to Iris (or those around her) that it’s even an option to accessorize these devices…or, and I imagine more likely…
- The devices are ‘unacceptable’ – meaning Iris (like others) just can’t reconcile herself with these medicalized impersonal machines and as such wants to distance herself from them. The way these devices look, feel and are understood in our culture in other words, is completely unacceptable to Iris and as such she does not want them to – in any way- be a part of her.
“There’s no how-to road map to style. It’s about self-expression and, above all, attitude.” – Iris Apfel
Every two years, a major contemporary art exhibition – The Venice Biennale – takes place in Venice, Italy with specific events for art, contemporary dance, architecture, cinema and theatre. At this year’s exhibition, one artist’s extraordinary work re-created a traditional assistive device using razor blades. Tayeba Begum Lipi, born in Gaibandha, Bangladesh, is known for creating paintings, prints, videos, and sculptures that articulate themes of female marginality and the female body. While many of her sculptural works purposefully use unexpected materials to speak primarily to the violence facing women in Bangladesh, her razor blade wheelchairs showcased at this year’s Biennale inspire an view on disability.
This piece – simultaneously beautiful and dangerous – reflects the challenges those with disabilities face daily in a world that continues to embrace ableist assumptions and beliefs. Looking at the detail of the piece I feel its message… when our society marginalizes people with disabilities, it perpetuates a kind of slow violence that will ultimately, destroy us all ~ as Emma Lazarus explains “Until we are all free, none of us are free”.