Open Style Lab - Wearable solutions for people with disabilities
I was so pleased to have the opportunity to speak at MIT yesterday as a panelist for Open Style Lab. Open Style Lab is a 10-week innovation challenge that teams up occupational therapy, design, and engineering students with clients that have a specific disability. Together, they come up with a wearable solution to their client’s specific needs.
The topic for yesterday’s discussion was “Aesthetics and Functionality,” and I was invited in regards to my work designing for performers. I thought it was an excellent and diverse balance to be on the panel next to interdisciplinary scholar Aimi Hamraie, artist and researcher/lecturer Sara Hendren and ABC certified prosthetist, Jason Rizzo.
Aimi spoke about designing for the public space for people with disabilities, the concept of “universal design”, eugenics and the bell curve. Sara raised lots of interesting questions about technology and why we alienate some as being “assistive” when in reality we all use assistive technology. She spoke about the decision people make to either hide or be expressive with this technology and about creating technology objects that ask questions rather than answer them. Jason Rizzo did a show-and-tell of different types of prosthetic arms and legs and spoke about how he tailors these items to people’s lives, about client’s priorities and how they change. I shared slides of NOT’s designs for musicians and dancers, talked about the functional requirements I take into consideration for each, and how my aesthetic decisions are based on functional explorations.
I wanted to use this blog post as an opportunity to expand on a few of the topics raised which I found really interesting.
1. Universal Design
Universal design is a philosophy and design phenomenon meant to produce buildings, products, and environments that are accessible to older people, people without disabilities, and people with disabilities. The idea is that this “flexibility” should be built into the way we design from the beginning, instead of adding on or changing afterwards.
As mass production took hold from the industrial age on, the need arose to have designs that fulfilled the requirements of the majority of the population. Through statistics and the bell curve, we could determine that 25% - 75% of the population fall within certain parameters. An example of universal design would be the Ergonomic Chair and how you can adjust the height and tilt to suit you. Another example are curb cuts (when the sidewalk slopes towards the road), which we may take for granted now, but only began happening in the 1940s when society had to suddenly accommodate for so many disabled war veterans.
However, the downside of the bell curve is that it’s inevitably difficult for those that fall before the 25% and after the 75%. For Aimi, for example, the ergonomic chair really isn’t so ergonomic. She feels incredibly uncomfortable in it and is exhausted after a day of squirming within it. And I’m sure many people can attest to the limitations of clothing sizes and how proportions scale, where the width of a skirt fits you around the hips but the waist doesn’t.
Much of Sara and Aimi’s work asks why designs in the public or private space exclude people with disabilities when solutions can potentially benefit all users. Sara Hendren asked this question in her project “Slope:Intercept" where she created ramps that could be used by both skateboarders and wheelchair users. I enjoyed her project statement analyzing the physics of an inclined plane and how it has made a built world more accessible to more bodies and the things they carry throughout history.
Other contemporary examples: Having dealt with dyslexia, Will Mayo recognized that being able to HEAR the internet would make it more accessible to the widest demographic possible. This resulted in Spoken Layer, a website that hires professional voice actors to narrate the top news as soon as they come out. Another example of Universal Design: A watch for the visually impaired so that one can tell time by touch. This could be useful for many other types of people who may just want to check out the time discretely.
Have you heard of cardboard carpentry? The Adaptive Design Association's mission is to ensure that children with disabilities can get the customized equipment they need to participate fully in their communities. They encourage using cardboard to build furniture and assistive devices not only because of the cost, but of these speed that this could be created and the flexibility and ease of the material. There are so many simple solutions that can make huge impacts and the fact is that that knowledge already lies in the users themselves.
Jason and I were in agreement with how custom our work was, being tailored to specific clients. However, there’s a wonderful flexibility that comes with modularity.
Here I was thinking about spacesuit design.. they started out as custom made garments for each astronaut, but now have suits made up of modular components so different length sleeves/legs can be attached to suit the astronaut. It cuts down significantly on costs.
The variety of Jason’s prosthetics range from looking anatomically like a leg (silicone leg mold, skin colored stocking over it) to being very anatomically unlike a human leg, but functioning really great while showing off the technology. He says that he can be much more flexible with the latter version, because pieces can be more modular and therefore more cost effective. For kids, this is great, because items can be extended or switched out as they grow rapidly. Some people even want to switch out types of feet when they want to go rock climbing or when they want to go running.
Unlike industrial products however, clothing seems to lack the ability to have modularity. Does anyone know of any examples I should be aware of?
How does one market assistive clothing or other assistive products? This was a contested topic. One of the OSL mentors, Maura Horton, is the founder of a company called Magna Ready that produces men’s dress shirts with hidden magnetic closures. She came up with this product when her husband had an early diagnosis of Parkinsons and could no longer button his shirts. She spoke about how when she researched the clothing options available for people like her husband, she was turned off by the imagery and presentation of these items. It wasn’t how she saw her husband. That’s why she prefers to market her items in a modern, clean, professional way.
One of the panelists interjected that this type of “normalcy” marketing seems to suggest that there’s something wrong with being different or showing that you’re different, and of a particularly American strain of individualism/independence. She felt that the reluctance of asking for help or offering help divides people and resists the very qualities that make us a better society. I enjoyed this recommended video from Sara’s syllabus, it’s a long walk and talk around the streets of San Francisco and speaks about a few of these things
Of course, I was made to think about marketing for NOT and my own questions about it. How to be specific, yet how not to alienate. How to market a “spirit,” rather than set guidelines of race, gender, or age.