A blog about universal and accessible design

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Disability Meets Design meets the press

Alice Rawsthorn reviews Grant Pullin's Disability Meets Design for the NY Times (she writes regularly on design for the International Herald Tribune and others). This is an excellent book that goes beyond anything I have ever read from the design world in terms of really examining both "design" and "disability" as constructed concepts-- as richly varied and variable arenas where human experience can be examined in relationship to the world of objects/spaces. The review picks up on one of Pullin's easiest to grasp examples: that glasses are fashionable, desirable, and not at all discreet products that could also be classified as "assistive devices." It's a great example, as is the design project called HearWear in which designers created prototypes for similarly varied and fashion-conscious hearing aids (pictured below: 'wearhead, the HearWear contribution by Hulger -- a camouflage-patterned set of oversized headphones, with options for a variety of patterns/colors -- which suggests the varied forms that specialized earwear, like sunglasses, might take). Source.
As this book gets attention in the non-disability-related press, this example will appear again and again. It's a good one. But Pullin also discusses design for people who use significant and very visible equipment, such as communication/speaking aids. Pullin also mentions a project in which designers worked in close collaboration with individual children with disabilities to develop products specifically for them. One of the designers created a light-up badge (I think we Americans would say "button") for a girl named Somiya, whose speech is impaired, so that she could quickly and easily add her own voice (so to speak) to an initial encounter. The message she chose was "Somiya says SOD OFF" -- a greeting I find so delightfully pissy as it completely refuses to capitulate to the charitable gaze that is most likely sent her way a lot of the time -- and which infuses a lot of writing about design and disability (below, the badge with its white words on a bright red background). Source.

The SOD OFF button isn't in any of the reviews of Pullin's book, as far as I have seen. I can't help but think this might be because it does not have a feel-good tone -- one that might fit with Rawsthorn's title, "Crafting for the Body and Soul." It's important in our discussion of design for disability to note that it is not just "sub-standard" design that stigmatizes-- it is disability. Design has the power to call into question stereotypes and expectations, and to provide alternatives to existing limitations. HearWear is the low-hanging fruit of that project-- a great example, but one that is still a fairly small target. Pullin's book rejects (implicitly and explicitly) the idea that design for disability is a charitable, "responsible" project -- instead, he argues that it cuts to the core of what design is about, shaping human experience. Even in some of the terms Rawsthorn uses-- noting the "heroes" of Pullin's book -- she retreads some of the same tired ground where disability is a do-gooder project, not just one that makes a lot of sense.

No comments: