World Intellectual Property Organization

Design for the Disabled

September 2009

How difficult is it to open a jar without the full use of one’s hands? How safe is it to step into the shower when one has arthritis or a knee injury? Is getting into a car always as simple as one-two-three, or could it take more planning for someone with an injured back? Asking these kinds of questions – and many more – is part of a new and growing dimension of design. The trend in making products – and information – more accessible to those with any kind of disability is gathering momentum. Interestingly, seeking design solutions that meet the needs of the disabled results in a better overall design, benefitting both the able and disabled.

New terminology has been coined to describe more inclusive design processes, including terms such as accessible design, barrier-free design and assistive technology. Universal design is a relatively new approach that has emerged from these models and describes the design elements of buildings, products and environments that allow for the broadest range of users and applications. The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University in the U.S. developed Principles of Universal Design, which guide a wide range of design disciplines. The Center defines universal design as designing products and environments in such a way that they are usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design for particular users.

Creating awareness among designers

Sometimes, all it takes to spur designers on to find better solutions is becoming aware of the shortcomings of a particular design. During a visit to a rehabilitation center for children and teenagers, designer Shabtai Hirshberg witnessed a boy on crutches refuse help from a physical therapist as he tried to mount a tricycle, only to get his leg caught on the seat. Mr. Hirshberg, an industrial design graduate from Hadassah College in Jerusalem, spent the next few months working with physical therapists and a rehabilitation psychologist on building a better tricycle, the A2B, for disabled children. The tricycle allows independent use for play, while also providing rehabilitation solutions. For now, it is just a prototype. But there is perhaps a wider market for it. Many of the design features – such as the two wheels in the front and the chest plate, which one could imagine lowering for a racing car effect – would be fun and functional for any child.


The A2B Tricycle prototype designed for
disabled children would be fun and functional
for any child. (Photo courtesy medgadget.com)

Functional limitations in vision, hearing and mobility interact and often aggravate each other. Poorly designed products and environments that may merely inconvenience users normally become insurmountable with such limitations – potentially transforming someone’s everyday world into an unsafe and insecure place. Rani Lueder, president of Humanics ErgoSystems consulting firm in Encino, California, has taught human factors classes to industrial design students at the Art Center College in Pasadena. To help students expand their notion of designing for all people, she required them to simulate physical disability as part of their design projects1.

For example, one student evaluated entry into different vehicles with a metal bar strapped onto his back to model the physical restrictions associated with back injuries. Others tried creative approaches such as restricting joints with bandages to simulate arthritis, adding bulky layers to imitate obesity and developing contraptions that limited peripheral vision. The exercise brought home the meaning of functional impairment to healthy, young design students. Many of them reported it had permanently changed their understanding of design implications for this vulnerable group of users.

Design for the elderly

Demographic trends show that the over-60 group will keep increasing to encompass an ever larger percentage of the population of Australia, Europe, Japan and North America, with significant implications for the world of design. Objects and environments designed for the aging have tended to look less appealing than other options on the market. But unaesthetic designs are not a necessary evil for older persons.

Kitchens, for example, can be made accessible to people with the disabilities associated with aging and yet look bright, modern and welcoming. The design team of German kitchen manufacturer Alno created a new kitchen for older customers by focusing on bringing kitchen units to the user, thus avoiding their having to bend over. The result is a fluid kitchen – My Way – that uses an electronically based tracking system to allow cabinets, appliances and even the sink to meet the user. With the push of a button, the kitchen countertop can be raised or the stovetop lowered to the height of a wheelchair. What’s more, people of all ages – and heights – could also enjoy cooking in such a customizable environment.

Let’s play

Children with disabilities often have far fewer opportunities to play than other children do, not only because their abilities are limited but because those limitations are barely, if at all, taken into consideration in play product design. Institutional appearance, high cost and low entertainment value are common drawbacks in products designed only for disabled children. Through programs such as “Let’s Play”, based at the University of Buffalo (New York), which collaborates with manufacturers to optimize universal features in toy design, children with disabilities can be included in the design process.

By expanding the “ability range” of toys to include features that disabled children can master, more children benefit (known as the from-able-to-disabled universal design approach). On the other hand, the from-disabled-to-able2 approach can broaden play options for children without disabilities. Therapeutic toys with greater play possibilities mean children without disabilities can also enjoy the entertaining elements of the toys while at the same time working on skill development. The larger production volume from a wider market, which would include all children, could also significantly lower product costs making the toys more affordable.

In communications

Designing information systems is another area where the needs of the disabled are increasingly being taken into account. And communication being the wave of the present – and future – it is vital that telecommunications and Internet services be made accessible to all users. In a move to follow the guidelines of the Web Accessibility Initiative3, WIPO installed software for the visually impaired on its public computers. The software allows a visually-impaired person to navigate through sites while web pages are read aloud – making vast quantities of information on the Web accessible auditorily.

Similarly, telecommunications systems that take into account the needs of the hearing impaired might incorporate a captioned telephone facility – a system that uses speech recognition technology to convert an operator’s voice into text. How does this kind of environmental design yield benefits for those without disabilities? By providing a more level playing field for all members of society and bringing more people into the arena where knowledge is shared and contacts are made.

Education, awareness, empathy

Recent books on designing for the disabled shine a light on this evolution in the design world. Ergonomics for Children: Designing Products and Places for Toddlers to Teens edited by Rani Lueder as well as design professor Don Norman’s The Design of Future Things are a few of the latest works. Norman says “The disabled are not just some small, disenfranchised group: they represent all of us. So the first step is education, awareness and empathy.”

The good news is that considering the needs of the disabled will ultimately lead to designs that are safer, more flexible and more attractive for all consumers. We are hopefully working towards a world where design solutions are found for people of all degrees of ability. 

By Heidi Schrott, WIPO Magazine Editorial Team, Communications Division

_________________

1 See Rani Lueder, “Expanding the Demographics of Human Factors”, Industrial Engineer, October 2008.
2 See Tsai Lu Liu, “A From-Disabled-to-Able Approach to the Universal Design of Children’s Play Products”, Department of Industrial Design, Auburn University.
3 The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) develops strategies, guidelines, and resources to help make the Web accessible to people with disabilities. 

_________________

Next article:  Country Focus:  Where there's a will, there's a way!
 

Explore WIPO