Category Archives: Articles

Reimagining Disability Through Art

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 DisArtSiTE: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

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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!

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TETRA – Volunteers working WITH people to CUSTOMIZE assistive devices according to THEIR needs

For 30 years, the Tetra Society of North America has been helping remedy real life problems for people with disabilities by creating customized assistive devices. Their primary goal is to reduce societal and environmental barriers through the creation of these devices while increasing independence for their clients in the process.

This nonprofit organization recruits skilled volunteers who are dedicated to fulfilling the unique—and sometimes challenging—requests that they receive. The projects they take on tackle barriers to mobility, personal care, and communications. They also help provide increased access within households and communities so that individuals can lead more independent lives. Depending on their needs, requests submitted by Tetra clients vary in complexity.

hip-supportFor example, one request was for a client with Cerebral Palsy looking to go on a long distance trip with their son on a plane. They were unable to sit in a regular plane seat, so they reached out to Tetra’s group of expert volunteers to see if anyone could build an exact replica of the client’s seating system that would allow them to travel by plane.

Another request was from a gentleman looking for assistance modifying his walker to include a semi-seat or hip support system to make walking easier (image to the right demonstrates suggested modifications).

Anyone can request assistance from their local Tetra chapter (there are 45 across Canada and the USA). When Tetra receives a request, they forward the general information to their cohort of volunteers to see if anyone is able to work on the project! I recently signed up to receive requests as part of Tetra Toronto.

Independence is linked to mobility, and it’s great to see an organization (and so many hardworking volunteers) coming together to address the mobility needs of members in their communities. According to their website, Tetra Society has completed 5,000 projects since they started up (many of which can be found and viewed via their online database).

More videos like the one featured above can also be viewed on their website here.

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“Designing for Dignity” – Tackling the Ableist and Ageist Fashion Industry

I hate uncomfortable clothing and have never understood the ‘hurts to be beautiful’ adage. Anything (pants, underpants, socks, whatever) I put on that bunches, creeps, or stretches too tight during my usual day of biking, walking, playing, and working will quickly find its way to the local thrift store!

IMG_8790Much of Western fashion tends to be designed for standing bodies without much consideration for people using mobility devices like wheelchairs and often favours form over function and comfort, too. I have to admit that in the past I didn’t think about how most of the clothing sold today would be SO uncomfortable for people using wheelchairs and other mobility devices. I should have figured this out sooner, as I know that certain clothes do not translate well when I ride my bike – shirts that are too short and low cut pants mean my back ‘bits’ are routinely exposed to the elements!

This is why I’ve been so inspired by Izzy Camilleri’s work, particularly her “Designs for Sitting”.

I saw her show “Fashion Follows Form: Designs for Sitting,” at the ROM last summer and was blown away by how beautiful–and sexy–the clothing is. It really inspired me to think critically about the relationship between fashion, mobility, and accessibility. It’s not surprising at all that her exhibit won The Richard Martin Exhibition Award by unanimous decision!

Others tackling this issue include Gary Markle and Glen Hougan from NSCAD University who is working on a clothing line that meets the needs of older people as well as those with mobility challenges. The line is called ‘Worn Well’ and is concerned with designing for dignity for a population often unconsidered in the fashion market. Read more about the clothing line project here.

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“ALL technology is assistive technology” ~ Sara Hendren

Sara Hendren’s a ROCKSTAR! An artist, writer, activist, and design researcher – Sara creates and writes about adaptive and assistive technologies, prosthetics, inclusive design, and accessible architecture from a critical disability perspective.  Her projects include the Accessible Icon Project a grassroots initiative that provides supplies and services to transform the original International Symbol of Access into this active, engaged image –

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In an interview with the Atlantic, Sara explains why we need to stop using the terminology ASSISTIVE technology and instead call “adaptive devices” what they are – TECHNOLOGY –

“Scholars and people who are activists for disability rights have spent a lot of energy in the last decades showing that disability is not about the state of a human body; it’s about the built environment, structures, and institutions that make life possible and meaningful—or conversely, impossible and meager—for certain kinds of bodies and minds. In other words, disability studies has worked to transition an understanding of disability from a “medical model” to a “social model.” A social model of disability opens up the discussion to consider how design and technologies might be re-imagined for all kinds of bodies, not “assigned” to those with medicalized conditions.

By returning “assistive technology” to its rightful place as just “technology”—no more, no less—we start to understand that all bodies are getting assistance, all the time. And then design for everyone becomes much more interesting.”

Sara has a blog Abler where she tracks and comments on art, adaptive technologies and prosthetics, the future of human bodies in the built environment, and related ideas. She also runs works on lots of other cool projects including designing ramps for skateboarders and wheelchair users –

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See what I mean? ROCKSTAR!

 

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Personalized Prosthetics – What’s your fancy?

Video: Woman builds prosthetic leg out of Lego - The Globe and Mail

Occupational therapist Christina Stephens designed and built her own lego leg – Cool! You can watch how she does this in her time-lapse video that went viral this past summer –

Personalized prosthetics serve many purposes beyond function – not only can they get people where they need to go, they do so with style, with fun, with flare, and yes with FASHION. Check out the ‘alternative limb project’ where consumers are participants in the design process selecting pieces that either “blend in with the body or stand out as unique pieces of art, reflecting the wearers imagination, personality, and interests”.

Floral SocketChrystalized LegPersonalized prosthetics, like personalized mobility devices, not only delight the eye, they help to break down social barriers by promoting conversation, admiration and interest. 

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Portable mats make beaches accessible – about time!

Now here’s a COOL design for those HOT summer days! Mobi-mats are lightweight, durable, portable mats that can be rolled out onto sandy beaches making them accessible to wheelchairs, walkers, canes and strollers.

Mobi-mats in action at Rockaway Beach NYC

These mats are being used on beaches around the world including Rockaway Beach in New York and beaches in Rio de Janeiro.

Recently, Wasaga Beach just outside of Toronto purchased some mobi-mats making their beach one of the most accessible in the province. CBC Metro Morning interviewed town clerk  Twyla Nicholson about the town councils decision to purchase the mats, and the impact its having on residents and visitors to the beach.

Simcoe-Grey MP Kellie Leitch pushes Frank Nunnaro, Wasaga Beach resident and Accessibility Advisory Committee member, down the new Mobi-mats towards the water at the ribbon cutting ceremony on Thursday, July 11, 2013

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Lady Gaga’s Pimped Up and Personalized Gold Wheelchair: A 24-Karat ‘Chariot’

Lady Gaga's Pimped Up and Personalized Wheelchair

Recovering from recent hip surgery for an inflammatory joint infection called synovitis, the superstar was originally given a more traditional wheelchair which she affectionately named ‘Emma’. Not wanting to give up her style however (who does?!), Lady Gaga commissioned jewelry designer Ken Borochov to design the leather-tufted chair that features a removable canopy.  Now THAT’s more like it girl – “P-p-p-poker face, p-p-poker face – Mum mum mum mah”…

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Softwalks: Turning Scaffolding into Pop-up Parks with Resting Places

This start up has ALL the right ideas! Scaffolding is not only UGLY, it creates significant barriers for people with mobility challenges including older folks, people with disabilities and parents with strollers. I lived in NYC for 5 years and would avoid sidewalks lined with scaffolding whenever possible because it was so unpleasant and felt even scary and dangerous sometimes. Resting places like these are essential for those of us who can’t quite ‘make it all the way’ and health-promoting for all of us as they provide opportunities for social interaction. Way to go SOFTWALKS!

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StopGap – Designing for function AND fashion!

StopGap’s Community Ramp Project

Now these guys have it right. Design is SO often ageist or ableist… BUT when it’s smart AND sexy everyone wants it! Now THAT’s COOL!

Listen to the interview on CBC with Matt Galloway to learn more about this amazing project and the guys behind it!

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Arty artificial limbs

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