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.
The Mobi electric folding wheelchair designed by Jack Martinich at Monash University is re-imagining mobility in an exciting new way.
Unlike traditional wheelchairs that (by their cumbersome, medicalized and rigid design) say “I don’t travel” “I don’t need to get around in poorly designed spaces” and “I am not worthy of sexy design” the Mobi electric folding wheelchair is actually designed to meet the lifestyle requirements of anyone who uses it – and looks FUN too!
This wheelchair offers a convenient alternative to the traditional wheelchair and bulky electric scooters. The chair features a special folding mechanism that allows it to be folded, stored, and transported in a vehicle without having to disassemble it.
What’s more, the ingenious design encourages user independence and promotes physical activity with the use of force sensors in the hand rims. When the user pushes on the hand rims to move, these sensors detect the physical exertion and add additional power to the wheels to make movement easier, similar to power steering in a car.
This wheelchair taps into a kind of versatility, ease, and lightness that’s unparalleled to traditional manual models and has the potential to break down barriers more than ever before. There’s a sort of playfulness in the colour and design that I like, too!
Unfortunately, this wheelchair is only a concept right now, but I’m looking forward to seeing this concept become a reality in the future!
Back in January, I wrote about the awesome TetraNation. In case you missed it, they’re a volunteer-led community of engineers and technically-minded people who help invent some pretty creative mobility solutions for people living with disabilities.
To celebrate their 30th anniversary and the great work of their dedicated volunteers, Tetra is holding a contest to showcase Tetra projects from chapters across the country!
Our world isn’t always built with accessibility in mind, and mobility devices (particularly those that are customized/personalized) are often really expensive. That’s what’s so amazing about these projects: they hinge on a DIY foundation to make accessible adaptations affordable AND individually tailored.
I’d like to give a huge shout-out to all of TetraNation’s incredible volunteers for making a real difference in people’s lives for three decades. THANK YOU!
Voting will be open until March 31, so check out the videos that have been posted so far and get INSPIRED! You can vote here: http://tetranation.org/video/.
Filed under Accessibility, Barriers, competition, Design, DIY, invention, Mobility Aids, personalizing, Posts, Projects, Wheelchairs
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!
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.
For 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.
What happens when you give three Los Angeles residents in wheelchairs video cameras to document their daily lives? A genius film providing caregivers, policy makers, health care professionals—and everyone else—the opportunity to see what the world is like through their eyes, that’s what!
Rolling is a patient-centered documentary by Dr. Gretchen Berland that offers an honest, eye-opening look at the daily challenges of living with limited mobility. LA residents Galen Buckwalter, Ernie Wallengren, and Vicki Elman spent nearly two years capturing 212 hours of footage on cameras mounted to their chairs.
It’s often easy to overlook the “small” challenges in our built environments – a raised surface outside the front door, an elevator under maintenance in a subway station, or a crumbling sidewalk on the way to your favourite café. While unconsidered by many, for others these are daily frustrations. I can’t imagine how exhausting – physically and emotionally – it would be to have to deal with this *&^$%#*@& every day! What is it that makes people facing these or other challenges on a daily basis get up every day and not only get on with their day but flourish?
In her book “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” Angela Duckworth explains the secret to outstanding achievement, and it’s not talent (like you might expect). Instead, she describes the secret to success as passionate persistence. I couldn’t help but notice parallels between grit and the three individuals in Rolling. All three clearly and repeatedly demonstrate the grit that Duckworth describes as they passionately persist and resist the social messaging and identities assigned to them.
Imagine arriving at a location labeled as ‘accessible’, only to discover there’s a step or ridge leading to the front door obstructing your entry. Unfortunately, this situation is all too familiar to people with disabilities.
Tackling this problem head on is Ryerson student Maayan Ziv.
Watch her interview with GlobalTV to see her talk about this great initiative by clicking this photo.
Maayan used her expertise in Digital Media to create an app that allows users to browse an interactive map to discover accessible places around the world. The mobile app, AccessNow, uses crowdsourcing (like Wikipedia) to collect information and rate locations based on people’s accessibility requirements. Locations are marked with colour-coded pins to show the degree of accessibility ranging from accessible, partially accessible, patio access only, and not accessible at all.
Maayan is passionate about creating a more accessible world and this app is a huge step in the right direction!
Technological innovation and advancement is helping us to re-imagine assistive devices in our everyday lives as new designs challenging previous limitations in amazing ways!
In 2013, a focus group of seven mechanical engineers and one electrical engineer from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, Switzerland teamed up with two industrial designers from Industrial Design at Zurich University of the Arts to create a wheelchair unlike any other. Adopting Beni Winter’s idea of creating a robot that climbed stairs, the team worked together to create a wheelchair that could do the same thing.
Electrically powered and strategically designed, this incredible piece of technology can climb stairs and possesses the ability to balance on two wheels to keep the occupant level at all times. VERY cool! See it for yourself!
Another great example of innovative technology that challenges us to re-imagine the scopes of assistive devices is Patrick Dougherty’s invention known as the “FreeWheel“. Slightly less complicated than the previous example, the FreeWheel is an attachment that makes navigating certain terrains substantially easier in a wheelchair. The foldable, removable wheel attachment significantly expands the user’s scope of movement, allowing them to travel through gravel, over grass, and even persevere through the snowy sidewalks during the winter. The FreeWheel is helping re-define what it means to live an active life in a wheelchair.
These are great innovations however research and innovation costs money, and high price tags can pose a huge obstacle for a lot of people. Which brings us back to the real barrier for people with disabilities ~ society’s inability and unwillingness to provide fully accessible environments for all citizens.
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 –
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 –
See what I mean? ROCKSTAR!