Wheelchair design: why should it be functional and not fashionable?

Disability campaign group Blue Badge Style has partnered with Brunel University’s design students to create products for wheelchair users that aim to be more stylish and comfortable than existing ones.

Blue Badge Style founder Fiona Jarvis disability wheelchairs
Fiona Jarvis, founder of Blue Badge Style

Update 21 November 2017: UK Disability History Month runs from 22 November – 22 December, so we are looking back at a project that aims to make wheelchair use easier and more stylish. Fiona Jarvis’ cup holder for wheelchair users was also one of 10 winners in this year’s Design Council Spark programme. It will now go on to be mass-manufactured and sold. Read more about the product here.  

“Stylish”, “personalised” and “innovative” are not often words associated with wheelchairs  – instead, they’re often seen as “functional”, “necessary” and “practical”. But for many of those with disabilities, day-to-day life is dependent on, and constructed around, the use of their chair.

That’s why groups such as Blue Badge Style – a website that campaigns for modern and stylish design in the production of mobility equipment – are trying to bring alternative designs for wheelchair users into the mainstream.

Fiona Jarvis, founder of Blue Badge Style, has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair herself – and says that she doesn’t want to lose her identity just because of this. “The fact that you’re in a wheelchair doesn’t mean you’ve lost your sense of style,” she says. “It becomes more important in fact – you can control style, while you can’t control your body.”

Jarvis isn’t the only one who thinks wheelchair designs need to be improved: she carried out research to determine what regular users of her website thought of their equipment – and 80 per cent said they were always disappointed with the equipment they bought.

Three quarters of this 80 per cent said that there was not enough choice. Many also wanted a try-before-you-buy system, as well as stylish equipment that didn’t break the bank. “Respondents have said that there’s no innovation and that everything’s very functional and institutionalised,” Jarvis says. “There needs to be more choice in terms of style and colour.”

So now, Blue Badge Style has partnered with product and industrial design students from Brunel University on a project called “Style My Chair”, where the students have come up with 22 concepts for wheelchair improvements and accessories, based on the answers to the survey. People can now vote online for which concept they would like to be made into a working prototype.

Concepts fall under three categories of ‘Bag’, ‘Accessory’ and ‘Innovation’. ‘Bag’ includes BackBackPack, a new wheelchair backpack with a side pocket that aims to be more stylish and secure than current wheelchair bags.

‘Accessory’ includes ideas such as personalised patterned wheel covers, a new rainproof mac and a honeycomb cup holder, which can adapt to fit any sized glass.

The Innovation category presents new technologies for comfort and convenience, such as Blueberry Lounge – a recycled car seat fitted to the chair for storage and comfort, Commute Gripper, a handle to aid comfort on long journeys, and One Hand Power, enabling users to wheel in a straight line using only one hand.

Current choices for wheelchair users are limited, Jarvis says: “Electric wheelchairs are horrible and chunky. Battery technology has come a long way but it seems to elude manufacturers of wheelchairs. Also, while children’s chairs come in trendy, bright colours, they’re always black for adults. Manufacturers just look at pure functionality – but I have to sit in my chair all day.”

It can also be difficult and inconvenient having to use both hands to wheel on a manual chair, and hard for wheels to grip in wet weather, she says.

Ian Harris is a senior designer at Motivation, a group that focuses on innovative wheelchair design. He says that issues also arise in balancing the person’s ergonomic seating position with the design of their chair. “It’s really tough positioning bodies in a wheelchair so that the person can sit comfortably and get their stresses and strains out,” he says. “You’re trying to prevent worse deformities happening through time. You can build in adjustments to control problems as the person grows – but this costs money and time. The human race is very varied, so equipment has to be fairly adjustable or tailored, which can be expensive.”

But Harris also says that small additions to wheelchairs can make a huge difference. “We once attached a small table to the chair of a girl with cerebral palsy,” he says. “It was a really simple communication board, so that she could point at things such as food and drink. Her mum was completely blown away because she had thought that her child couldn’t communicate, and suddenly she had a voice.”

Motivation has also previously implemented designs such as a three-wheeled wheelchair, to aid balance and direction, and a bigger base and front wheels, for use on rough terrains. The company is also in the process of creating a three-wheeled folding chair.

“Style My Chair” was put together by Brunel’s Co-Innovate programme, which aims to increase collaboration between universities and businesses through design and innovation. Brunel University’s MSc Integrated Design programme director Stephen Green, who is working with the students on the project, says that the partnership will be beneficial for his students as well as for wheelchair users. “It’s encouraging our students to think about wheelchair users from the perspective of wheelchair users,” he says.

“Fiona tells a very compelling story about how she wants to lead a normal, fashionable life and that existing wheelchair products just don’t meet that need,” he says. “Why can’t the wheelchair make a positive, personal statement about the user? We thought this project was ideal both in terms of helping our students to think creatively about this challenge, and in developing their skills to think more empathetically about particular users.”

According to votes so far, the concepts that are currently most likely to be developed into a working prototype include the backpack, rain mac, cup holder and wheel covers. To view the full list of ideas and vote for a concept in the “Style My Chair” competition, visit the Blue Badge Style website.





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  • Jan Hautala November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I have a power chair. I feel like I am driving a tank. It is impossible to keep the chair clean. Dust and crud gets in the mechanicals which has tons exposed wires and crevices. There is zero design consideration to personalize a chair. Being a woman at a fancy occasion feels like I’m a dump truck in a show car room. I need a cup holder that will hold different sizes and easily removable. A pop up rear view mirror. Arm rest bag that work more like a purse. Ports for charging a phone, iPad, etc. more modern, sleek designs.

  • Helen Dugdale November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    These are all great ideas… My sister had a stroke at the age of 41 and is now in a clumpy, hard to move around wheelchair and her electric wheelchair has a mind of its own! All these products are essentials that people need yesterday! If any products need road testing she’d love to do it. Nice story to run Design Week. I

  • Janet Jones November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    yeah bit of style needed in the design! I have 2 quickie chairs, one with emotion wheels which is very heavy, I don’t think the style lines are too bad but I paid more money to have the colour I wanted and better suspension but anything less than standard is so expensive and I had never heard of wheeling with one hand until this article, I have spilt a lot of coffee trying to balance it between my knees whilst wheeling I have to hang bag handles between the push handles to get shopping

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