“We have an important voice”: co-design with disabled people is being neglected

A one-size-fits-all approach means that disabled people are not being consulted on the design of products they use. We speak to the people who are trying to change this.

Earlier this month, South Korean product designer Jiheon Song unveiled a new concept design: the Slip Wash. At first glance, the silver washing machine looks like a futuristic update on a common household appliance. But close up, it’s a solution to a problem faced by hundreds of thousands of people in their daily life.

Slip Wash was designed as an accessible washing machine for wheelchair users. The outward-opening door of a traditional washing machine takes up space, and presents wheelchair users with – often unseen – access issues. Using instead an upwards sliding mechanism, Song’s Slip Wash aims to provide a smoother experience for those in need.

“When I was volunteering at a social services centre, [this was when] I first found that wheelchair users had difficulty using the washing machine,” says Song. From there he began interviewing wheelchair users in a bid to explore how the issue could be tackled, since, he says, “a solution was needed”.

Song’s design is an example of how designers and people with disabilities can collaborate to create products that change and improve every day lives, but this kind of co-design is far too uncommon.

Dog tag zip pull, designed by Jessica Ryan-Ndegwa

“Like designing a saddle when you’ve never seen a horse”

Jessica Ryan-Ndegwa is a product designer and founder of Design for Disability, a design platform that looks to include people with disabilities in the design of the medical aids they use for their conditions. Born herself with cerebral palsy, she says end users are rarely thought about in design processes.

“As a child I would go to my monthly clinical check-ups and be handed these medical aids – things like wrist splints and button hooks – and the only design input I had was what colour I wanted them in,” says Ryan-Ndegwa.

She continues: “These products would come from my occupational therapist or my physio therapist, but there was no consultation about how I interacted with each product, how it worked for me and how it could be improved.”

The problem, as Ryan-Ndegwa identifies it, is that these and so many other products are designed under the assumption that people with disabilities are one homogenised group. As a result, products are developed without comment or consultation of those affected.

“It’s like designing a saddle when you’ve never seen a horse,” she says.

Hair clip button hook, designed by Jessica Ryan-Ndegwa

“The last thing we should want is to segregate people”

It was this desire to change the process that prompted Ryan-Ndegwa to launch Design for Disability and take on the task of individual-centred design.

So far, in consultation with individual disabled users, she has developed three products for everyday use. These include a dog tag necklace with hidden zip-pull device, which eliminates the need to “carry around an embarrassing, clunky medical aid”, and a hairclip which doubles as a button-hook aid which allows users to independently navigate buttons on clothes.

At its core, Ryan-Ndegwa says her mission is to take products that have previously been the target of stigma or source of embarrassment and turn them into pieces of pride. By working closely with end users, she says she aims to match products with interests and habits and design products that easily fit into an individual’s life, rather than stand out.

“The last thing we should want for people with disabilities is to give them medical aids that further segregate them from society,” she says.

The Wizzybug, designed by Designability

“Creating in response to an unmet need”

Designing for inclusion is a goal echoed by Matt Ford, design and engineering programme manager at Designability, the UK charity that for more than 50 years has used “human-centred design” to build assistive technologies for people with disabilities and those living with long term health conditions.

“The products we create are in response to an unmet need,” he says. “We listen and interpret people’s requirements into a product that is suitable and effective but are careful to ensure that the product remains desirable.”

He points to Designability’s Wizzybug powered wheelchair, which was designed to meet the needs of children under five as an example of this. Rather than marking the child out as “different” as Ryan-Ndegwa says often happens with one-size-fits-all products, the Wizzybug was designed to give individual children “the ability to learn and play”.

“We built it to have vast amounts of desirability, so we designed it to look like a little car,” Ford says. “It means other children want to play with it because it’s ‘toy-like’ which, in turn, promotes social inclusion.”

Slip Wash, designed by Jiheon Song. Also banner.

Individual vs. mass appeal

Designing for individual cases is, by nature, at odds with mass production. And while better and more suited to each person, Ford says he can understand how industry justifies its blanket approach.

“I come from an industry background myself and can appreciate that [designers] are aiming to design for the masses and to generate healthy profit”, he says. “[But] this does mean that it is not always a priority to spend more time and resources on creating the best product possible.”

Instead, both Ford and Ryan-Ndegwa say the solution to the problem lies in an open dialogue with people with disabilities, before any design work has been done. By working from “the niche”, Ryan-Ndegwa says more universal designs can be developed, which come with their own kind of mass appeal.

She points to kitchen and homeware brand Oxo’s Good Grips line. First introduced in 1990, the line of kitchen utensils was intended to be easily usable by people with arthritis. But with thick, rubbery and ergonomic handles, they became widely used by both disabled and able-bodied people.

“[Oxo] has managed to bring accessibility to the wider market, from a niche area,” she says. “They’ve designed tools that appear “normal” to the everyday eye, but that put the needs of a disabled group of people first.”

In this way, Song’s Slip Wash could easily be brought into the mainstream too, as helpful for those with small living spaces or other constricting circumstances.

The Sit n Ride tricycle, designed by Designability

“An equal balance of inputs”

Ultimately, Ryan-Ndegwa says, people with disabilities have an “important, necessary voice” when it comes to design.

As Design for Disability develops, Ryan-Ndegwa aims to create a consultancy service. This will, she says, provide space for both disabled people and designers and scientists (who may or may not have disabilities themselves), to come together and collaborate.

“There needs to be an equal balance of inputs between the people designing and the people being designed for,” she says, much like the work done by Designability and herself, but on an industry-wide scale.

“We’re not going to make any progress if we carry on designing for people when they’re nowhere near the design process.”

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