When Disability Is A Design Opportunity

The Cooper Hewitt museum in New York City is currently running a fascinating exhibition entitled Access+Ability. The exhibit features new and innovative products that help people with disabilities experience their world more effectively through design. Some of the products are in the marketplace today, while others are in the prototype stage. All are inspiring in their use of design to solve every day problems for people with a variety of accessibility issues, including more “traditional” disabilities like mobility challenges, blindness and deafness, but also other obstacles like dementia, blood clots, and tremors.

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Disability As A Design Opportunity

The exhibit was incredibly inspiring, demonstrating beautifully how creativity and design can help people overcome everyday obstacles. A quote on the wall summed up the exhibit succinctly.

“Disability is a mismatch between my own abilities and the world around me. Disability is a design opportunity.”

–August de los Reyes, Head of Design at Pinterest

I love the optimism of that quote — that design can help make things accessible for all. This has been demonstrated countless times through things like wheelchair ramps which not only assist people who use wheelchairs, but also provide access for parents pushing their children in a stroller or travelers with heavy luggage. Not only do the people with a disability benefit from this simple design element, we all do.

The same can be said for architectural features like the careful placement of angles and the subtle use of noise absorbing materials which can improve the acoustics of a restaurant or meeting space for everyone. Open captioning is similar. It not only provides support for people with hearing loss, but also for people for whom English is not a first language. Smart design benefits everyone.

Adding Fashion To Improve Form

Many of the products in the exhibit used design elements to turn what are typically viewed as medical products into fashion statements. There were compression stockings in bold prints rather than ugly medical beige and artificial limbs featuring elaborate carvings and bright colors. There were even blinged out hearing aids (called earring aids!) as you can see in the photo below.

The beautification of these objects makes them more noticeable, but at the same time strips away stigma by making them more fun. I love the idea that we can celebrate and personalize the items we use to make our life more functional and enjoyable.

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Source: Cooper Hewitt

Rethinking Form To Increase Usability

Other products took fashion items such as high top sneakers and dress shirts and made them easier to access. For example, there was a pair of Nike sneakers on display that had been designed with input from a man with cerebral palsy. The heel folded down to let him more easily slide his foot into the shoe and additional velcro straps were added to let him fasten the sneakers to his feet without assistance. There were also dress shirts that used magnetic closures but gave the appearance of buttons when secured. These types of products not only look great, but give people of varied abilities the independence to dress themselves.

What About Hearing Loss?

The exhibit featured several items for people with hearing issues, although nothing that really broke new ground. There were “fashionable” alternatives to hearing aids like the earring aids I mention above and an innovative PSAP from Doppler Labs (now defunct), but nothing I hadn’t seen before. There was an innovative shirt that vibrated with music to simulate the experience of music for someone who is deaf, but nothing creative to combat the day-to-day frustrations of living with hearing loss. Much opportunity for innovation in this area remains.

If you are in NYC, you can visit the exhibit through September 3, 2018. Or check out the website where you can view some of the items on display and learn more.

Readers, do you think of disability as a design opportunity?

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16 thoughts on “When Disability Is A Design Opportunity

  1. Ah yes – If I were a young man there are so many things I would do and at the top of the list would be to design my house with an old deaf man in mind – an old man with poor balance, diminishing strength, stiff of joint and sometimes short of breath. Design: That young man might even become a master of design. How exciting that those things that need to be the focus of design and development are indeed there.

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  2. Yes….there are so many opportunities for HOH/deaf people, in terms of design.
    I love those beaded, BTE hearing aids.
    In fact, I tried to create my own, a few years ago, but they weren’t as pretty.
    Interesting…so many people (including audiologists) think that it’s better to “HIDE” your hearing loss…which is why the manufacturers use plastic tubing that is clear. Oh, how I wish that they made colored plastic tubing, which would kind of look like jewelry behind the ear.
    The other benefit of bejeweled tubing, would be that communication partners would become aware, immediately, that the HOH person is using a hearing aid, because s/he has hearing loss.

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  3. What a great exhibit idea and hope to visit soon . Those blinged out hearing aids are fantastic! I guess you could easily make your own with some cheap gems and the same glue they use for the ear mold tubing , lol. .. There is nothing worse than the color of hearing aids in “natural” skin tone color which is more like the color of a drab band aid. I always found the dark brown hearing aids to be a nicer match for my dark brown hair than those skin color aids . I would gladly wear a hearing aid of an attractive “color” . I recall years ago they did have hearing aids for kids in neon colors. Not sure how popular they were since I’m sure HOH kids didn’t want to be noticed or glow in the dark with their hearing aids !

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  4. Great show, but I too wished there was more about hearing aids and cochlear implants.
    I don’t know of any way to decorate hearing aids, but you can customize your cochlear implant.
    Go to skinit.com, click on “skins”, then click on “medical devices”, then click on your own brand. My c.i. (from Advanced Bionics) has a Monet Water Lilies theme.
    I also once saw a woman at an HLAA convention with black Med-El c.i.’s decorated with rhinestones. Loved them.

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  5. They are so pretty and I would love to have my hearing aids stand out more.
    If people noticed those jewels, instead of wearing those almost invisible, clear plastic tubes, then people might accommodate my need to see their face when they talk to me.
    Hearing loss is really an invisible disability. Unless we find a way to make our hearing aids more noticeable, people never know that we are HOH or deaf.!!!1

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