Thursday, October 28, 2010

Reflections: Design Meets Disability

This is one of the most enjoyable, out-of-the-box, unique books I’ve read for my academics. I couldn’t wait to share my thoughts on it, and yet, when the moment has arrived, I find myself at a loss for the right words and sentences to describe and do justice to this book! Anyone with a passing interest in design, engineering, interaction design, disability, art or even fashion would benefit from reading this book, or at least parts of it. It puts a completely different perspective into you, that you will start finding innovative approaches to intermingling disciplines that you thought should never ever be put together! I mean, engineering plus fashion?! Art plus disability?! Of course, the underlying thread here is that the reader should be able to empathize with (if not be impassioned about) helping to remove the stigma associated with the physically (and cognitively) challenged people in our society.

To start with, our notions of what constitutes as disability is very skewed. The World Health Organization has put forth that people cannot be categorically segmented into disabled and “abled”. Disability is a continuum like most variables and factors in our life. And almost all of us have varying levels of disability - in terms of our vision, hearing, and other bodily functions. We have our own medications and aids to resort to, our own difficulties and nagging complaints.

Put in such a light, it seems unfair that a person who has lost one limb, should be segregated from the rest with a stringent stamp of disability - right from the clothes they can wear, to the prosthesis they are given, with the attitude - “make the best use of what is given to you, and don’t expect more, for your condition cannot be ameliorated”. We don’t see that kind of culture prevailing in clinics and “shops” that give us a plethora of options to select the design, the color, the look and feel of the frames for our spectacles (now called as eye-wear), when wearing corrective lenses is one form of an augmentation similar to prostheses? I remember years before when wearing glasses to correct one’s vision was a stigma by itself!! Back in the day, the stigma was only further perpetuated through the glasses people had to wear. Glasses were only available in gargantuan, awkward square-shaped, thick black frames that hid half the face. The psychological scarring from this cannot be trivialized! Many women had to even compromise on who they could marry because of this stigma. Slowly, the infusion of a little bit of fashion, art and thoughtful design have resulted in sleeker frames, that complement people’s faces! Some people still choose to wear glasses over wearing contact-lenses. The point in case is that - people have options and have choices, respecting their preferences, and allowing them to express themselves. Eye-wear has become almost a fashion accessory. This has completely erased the stigma, the wearer’s lack of confidence, and the cultural and social issues surrounding it. It doesn’t seem ludicrous to aim for such a change in the culture of design of hearing aids, wheel-chairs, communication aids, speech-synthesizers, crutches and prosthesis, does it?

Medical and rehabilitation engineers often fail to factor in the cultural and social implications of giving people prostheses that are rigidly functional, but not aesthetically pleasing. Moreover, there is no choice in what they get. Engineers are prone to say - Why on earth should a prosthetic limb be aesthetic? Isn’t it a waste of time? Wrong. This dismissal that everything related to aesthetics, and look and feel is just too superfluous and cosmetic, is a very narrow perspective. It might help if we stretched our boundaries and considered aesthetics, design and fashion with a tolerant attitude. It’s not always shallow - our body is essential in defining our identity. What we wear and how we present ourselves, is a projection of our self-expression and identity. Besides, it is highly emotional. This thought might be derided by spiritualists and philosophers, but if you are a realist, you would realize the psychological necessities for being comfortable in your body and in what you choose to wear. In our perfectionist society, I agree that an obsession with the perfect body and looks, seeps into materialism and consumerism, and is definitely not healthy. But, there are limits to the austerity that we can advocate. People with physical challenges already face an immense psychological trauma of grappling with the changes in their life - if their challenges are exacerbated through “assisitive” augmentations that just widen the gulf between them and their social and cultural identities, it is extremely emotionally damaging. As one designer put it - if we can invest research and time into designing so many variants and flavors of toothpaste and toothbrushes to please a wide audience, shouldn’t we attempt to provide at least half as many choices in the design of assistive products that directly impact lives?

Graham Pullin powerfully makes the case for considering the social and cultural aspects of disability, rather than stereotyping and homogenizing an entire population’s “needs”. Designers and engineers must acknowledge that there is bound to be a diversity of needs and preferences. And the part of the book that I liked the best was Pullin’s suggestion to designers to look for commonality of needs across people. Regardless of whether one has hearing aids, wears glasses, or wears a prosthetic leg, there are bound to be some needs that overlap across the boundaries. Tap on these “resonant needs” to design products that are both accessible, aesthetic and functional to the majority of the population - so there is no label that Watch X is worn by the visually impaired versus Watch Y is worn by the hearing impaired etc... This is the sort of concept behind “Universal Design”, but Pullin takes it up by a notch through his examples that adopt a minimalistic and aesthetic approach, instead of trying to clutter the product with features and functionality  to accommodate a wide group of people. As Google and Apple have demonstrated - good design is simplicity personified in elegance and functionality. The design examples in the book are awe-inspiring (at least to someone from within the field!), and really broadens our thinking horizons.

Pullin encourages an inter-disciplinary approach towards designing products, technology and assistive devices for the physically and cognitively challenged. Engineers are rigorously trained to view everything as a problem that needs to be solved. The human elements are often lost in the solutions. Sometimes what is required is not a solution - but merely a different perspective, attuning oneself to a novel idea. Why not playfully explore solutions, or seek to redesign with the attitude of that of an eccentric fashion-designer or a furniture designer who think beyond norms to innovate a skirt or a chair? Put engineers, designers and people from fashion and art together in the same room - wouldn’t the outcomes be phenomenally creative, functional and aesthetic? Each discipline has something valuable to learn from the other and contribute to each others' way of thinking. While it might seem impossible to work together, the common cause should carry enough momentum to deliver sensitive, elegant and intelligent designs.

The book teems with inspirational design ideas that put a spin on one’s imagination and creativity. True to Pullin’s repeated assertion - his ideas really do make design for disability turn on its head. A brilliant read.

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