Essays & Articles


CNN Designers challenged to include disabled

I’m on a campaign. The quest: To make assistive devices aesthetically delightful — without impairing effectiveness and cost. This occurred to me because of an interview I gave to CNN (Designers challenged to include disabled. ) and the amazing emails I have gotten back asking for help.

The more I thought about the issue, the more I decided that the time has come to do something about it.

In the article, Designers challenged to include disabled, Mike Steere of CNN (London) did a very nice piece on the need for accessible design that is also aesthetically enjoyable. To me, the most gratifying part of the article is the amount of email I have received from people who have disabilities or who are friends or relatives of people with difficulties, all applauding the theme, all desperately seeking assistance.

It is well-accepted in the accessibility design arena that when we design for people with difficulties, we actually make life better for everyone. It is still amazing to me how badly things are designed for everyday folks, let alone for people who have difficulty navigating the world, who have only one arm with which to crack open an egg, button a shirt, or work kitchen appliances. It seems the better designers get in one domain, the more bad design appears in others. Even the well-known admonition against the use of red and green as indicators, which thereby disenfranchises 5% of the world’s population, is either ignored or, as the last time I mentioned this at a major conference, pooh-poohed as amusing but insignificant. Not to those who are color blind, it isn’t!

And why are things such as canes, wheelchairs so ugly? The walker and the knee scooter are clever and essential devices for many, but why so unappealing? Many people who need walkers refuse them because of the stigma they cast. Why not make the walker or the knee scooter into items of envy? So teenage kids will have knee scooter races and contests. So people with canes, wheelchairs, and walkers will be considered “cool” and in fashion. So that these aids are effective, easy to transport, fun to use, and a source of pride rather than embarrassment?

Even the simple cane needs rethinking. Today, so-called “stylish” canes are those with wood handles or decorations. Bah, what a lack of creative imagination. Today we have new materials and can make things into wonderful, delightful shapes, with folding components that are both a joy to fold and unfold, but that also would allow the cane to be slipped into a suitcase, briefcase, or pocketbook. Why couldn’t the cane, walker, or knee scooter also have carrying compartments? In years past, the cane held small flasks of liquor or even small weapons. Today they could hold notepads or navigational aids or — well, you decide. The well-designed walker or knee scooter might be just the right thing for me to take to the food store to carry the bags of groceries back to my house, even though I (as of yet) have no normal need for these devices. With good design, everybody benefits.

Alas, when people ask me if I am working in this area, I have to admit that I am not. There are only 32 hours in the day, and for me, they are all filled. But I urge the skilled industrial designers of this world to revolutionize this arena. Perhaps the Industrial Design Society of America (IDSA) and the equivalent design societies all over the world ought to sponsor a design contest. The best design schools should encourage design projects for assistive devices that function well, are cost effective (two aspects that are often left out of design schools) as well as fun, pleasurable and fashionable (aspects that are absent from more engineering- or social-sciences -based programs).

There are many groups at work in this area: simply do a web search on the phrases “inclusive design” or “universal design” or “accessible design.” They do excellent work, but the emphasis is on providing aids and assistance, or changing public policy. All that is both good and essential, but I want to go one step further: add aesthetics, pleasure, and fashion to the mix. Make it so these aids are sought after, fashionable, delightful, and fun. For everyone, which is what the words inclusive, universal, and accessible are supposed to mean.

Is there a large commercial market for these devices? Maybe sometimes we ought to do things because they are the right things to do, regardless of the size of the market.

Designers of the world: Unite behind a worthy cause.