Design Meets Disability

In ITP, Physical Computing

As a part of our week 3 assignment, we were asked to read Design Meets Disability by Graham Pullin. In this piece, he discusses the importance of involving design in the creation of products for the disabled.

I read this article a couple weeks ago, and as a result, I don’t remember all the fine details of his Pullin’s arguments, however, there is one thing that stuck with me. I had an issue with the feasibility of some of his suggestions.

I agree that the value of bringing in designers to work with the clinical engineers and doctors during the ideation and creation process of these products is immense. There’s no question that the cross pollination of different industries leads to new perspectives and solutions. Particularly, if we’re talking about the issue of stigma related to disability products, designers are in the best place to make something cool. I think this theoretical point that Pullin makes is hard to argue. But it’s just that. It’s a theoretical argument. In the real world, there are not many disability product markets that could support the individualistic design that Pullin suggests is necessary to make these products more of a badge of honor than a scarlet letter. If you’re dealing with a product that does not have great demand, introducing several varieties of each product based on aesthetics could fragment an already thin market and lead to financial problems for the businesses producing them.

Pullin leads with the example of eyewear. It is pretty incredible that something that initially started out as disability product is now embraced as a big part of a person’s style. Now people who don’t even need glass wear them, simply for the look. However, this is a pretty unique phenomenon. I’m not saying it couldn’t be repeated but it has two strong factors can be attributed to its adoption. One, it plays off of the natural degradation of the human body—no particular event leads to decreased visions, for most people it just happens over time. Needing glasses is a very common thing, and therefore, contributes to the large demand. Also, I think the positive image of glasses comes partly from sunglasses, which is not a disability product. Sunglasses account for a large part of the eyewear market and demand. This large demand means that companies can produce a lot of different designs without risking their viability. The only other disability product that could reach a similar scale is the hearing aid, as it also plays off of the natural degradation of our body. He also brings up hearing aids as an example and it’s very possible that we see hearing aids come out that are no longer creating to be invisible, but instead, a fashion statement.

Where I had trouble with this was when he started talking about prosthetic limbs. These markets are not large enough to support such variation. Because as you start to design anything that’s a statement one way or another, you’re going to alienate some people. Therefore, you would need enough variety to satisfy the sensibilities of all people looking for prosthetics. He gave a couple examples of the positive impacts of when designers did step into this space. Aimee Mullin’s beautifully carved wooden prosthetic leg was something that would make you proud, not ashamed. However, how many people is that accessible to? That must have cost tens of thousands of dollars based on the price of a standard prosthetic leg. Monestier’s golden hand with the leather palm is brilliant, but again, how many people is that accessible to? Would companies ever be in a position where it would be financially viable to produce something like this? Pullin acknowledges the challenges of making these products financial viable but never really explains how to address those challenges.

I realize that I am being a little stubborn on this and there are big ways that designers could positively impact these smaller market disability products. Obviously on the general aesthetic, but also on the usability and performance of these products. My issue is that I remember Pullin focusing a little too much of the individuality of design (i.e. making designs that suit all different sorts of people) for these smaller verticals and I just don’t that that would ever happen.


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