Challenging disabled stereotypes

In a bid to encourage designers to re-examine the aids provided for disabled people, a collaborative group has launched a CD-ROM providing research and information about what this consumer group really wants.

As many as four million UK consumers fail to benefit from much of the expertise developed by product and interior designers. Bundled under the catch-all label of disabled, these people must contend with poor access to buildings, aids with styling which borders on the agricultural, and products which are hard to use.

Designers, educationalists and occupational therapists have now gathered together to create what they hope will prove to be a catalyst for change.

Collaborative group Design for Ability last week launched Design Aid, a CD-ROM based on quantitative research of disabled consumers. The disk provides, it is thought for the first time, a view of what disabled consumers actually want from products.

Rather than lump all disabled people into one group, the re-search, based on 600 interviews, divides them into distinct consumer groups, like the rest of us.

Aimed at designers and college tutors, the disk uses design terms and conventions – it includes mood boards to explain each consumer group’s interests – and will be available to purchase and, hopefully, also from libraries.

In the long term it may have an impact on the design of mainstream consumer products, but an immediate short-term result has been to highlight shortcomings in the design of specialised equipment for disabled people.

If the DfA’s figures are accurate, a sizeable proportion of such aids – as high as 30 per cent – are gathering dust in cupboards and sheds, rather than actually being used. One of the reasons given is that disabled people are no longer content to have “institutional” devices cluttering up their homes.

“People are dissatisfied with the equipment, and 30 per cent don’t use it because it doesn’t improve their abilities,” says DfA research fellow Judith Payling. She tells of a National Health Service walking frame which once turned up in an auction – it had been painted gold and used to support a chandelier.

This kind of use means that already pressured health and social service budgets could be far more effectively spent if aids were better designed.

“People’s attitude to their disability – and their self-image – is directly affected by their equipment,” says Malcolm Johnston, DfA director and lecturer at Central St Martins College of Art and Design. “The challenge for designers is to retain such aids’ essential function but get rid of the negative associations by removing the dividing line wherever possible between products for able-bodied and disabled people,” he adds.

The much-praised ACTIV Walking Frame was created by Tangerine to test the validity of the research, while looking at possible replacements for the venerable zimmer. An icon of disability, zimmer frames have long been the butt of jokes and have a generally negative image. Tangerine’s replacement, only intended as a design exercise, received widespread publicity. Five manufacturers have contacted the group to express an interest in producing it commercially.

Tangerine partner Martin Darbyshire says development of consumer-led products for the disabled could represent a large and untapped market for design groups. “There are big opportunities,” he says. Healthcare professionals support this claim, as did a number of wheelchair users present at the launch of Design Aid.

They included MP Anne Begg, who told delegates she had been forced to pay more than 30 for a bag designed to fit on to the back of her wheelchair, despite not liking it, because it was the only one available. A number of those present were curious as to where they could acquire non-standard wheelchairs.

A drive to provide more consumer choice for the disabled appears to be gathering steam. Paul Boateng, Parliamentary Under-secretary of State for Health, is another supporter of DfA. He describes it as “an important and exciting initiative”.

“We need to challenge the staid stereotypical notions of aids for disabled people among both providers and users,” he adds. “Equipment underpins community care and enables disabled and elderly people to lead a full and active life.”

The Chartered Society of Designers also welcomes the initiative: “For too long disabled people have been expected to gratefully accept any aids they were given; usability, let alone appearance, were often given scant regard,” says CSD president, Adrianne LeMan.

The education sector stands to be a major beneficiary of the project. Johnston says many of the requests so far received for the CD-Rom have been from secondary school teachers, where Design Aid is seen as an educational tool with implications outside the realm of pure design.

Funding is now being sought to help DfA provide designers with more tools to design effective products for disabled users.

Johnston says industry should, initially, be avoided as a funding source, as DfA must not tie itself too closely to any one manufacturer. Various bodies and institutions will be approached instead.

With an ageing population the launch of Design Aid is timely – soon manufacturers will simply be unable to ignore the demands of consumers who are disabled because of the sheer force of numbers. Design groups would do well to prepare.

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