A blog about universal and accessible design

Monday, October 27, 2008

architects riffing on ramps and etc

Image: Entrance to the Rotterdam Kunsthal, designed by Rem Koolhass' OMA: a gently sloping floor enclosed in walls of glass, with massive dark cement columns. A small ramp to the left leads up to a sign reading "entree."

A friend started this thread at Archinect asking about interesting examples of Universal (specifically wheelchair/walking accessible) spaces, sparking a wide-ranging discussion of what architects can, should, and do design for accessibility and inclusion. My quick observation-- some of the contributors to this discussion are quick to shut down the conversation with comments like "what would be the point" of designing a ramped area/space in a building that is not ADA compliant, or, alternatively, that buildings should not be the target of new design but that better wheelchairs and, indeed, re-engineered bodies should be the way to go. It strikes me that pointing away from the design problem is always an easy way to wriggle out of it. Yes, the ADA like all building codes can be shortsighted, but what does that mean-- keep addressing accessibility just as code and not as a real functional or formal issue in a building? Generally speaking, creative experiments may have gotten us all into a lot of messes but I still think it's worth it. I used the example of the Guggenheim in my post on the idea of a "world without stairs" knowing that Frank Lloyd Wright did not design its interior ramp with wheelchairs in mind-- but to show that the unintended consequences of design decisions can be delightful as well as disruptive (as in the case of the zillions of buildings/landscapes/products designed without thought of what they require of the body).

This thread also makes me more sensitive to the obstacles architects face to innovation, given that they have no more severe critics than their colleagues. And yet.. does all the criticism produce better architecture?

(side note-- Susan, if you are reading this, I can't comment on Archinect without being a member, but you might be interested in a few posts on Wheelchair Dancer's blog about her and her partner's and their architects' design process for ramps inside their house: for example 1 2 3.)

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Using Design to Crack Society's Problems

Yes, it is possible, says Hillary Cottam to Alice Rawsthorn in Fast Company.

A couple of projects from Cottam's past work with the Design Council in England:

"Earlier this decade, while working for the Design Council, Cottam turned to health care. Originally she planned to rethink hospital design but became more interested in community-based services for sufferers of chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes. "One in four people in Britain now has a chronic disease that's treated at home," she says. "So why are we investing in hospitals rather than community-based solutions?

"[Another] problem the Design Council team identified is that diabetes sufferers often forget to raise important issues with doctors and caregivers. The solution was a pack of diabetes cards, each printed with a question to be used as a prompt. Superficially it looks like a health-care project but, as Cottam points out, design techniques were critical in identifying patients' problems and producing an efficient graphic solution. "It's amazing how new the simple design concept of understanding users is to many in the health-care field," says Tim Brown, CEO of the design firm Ideo, which works in U.S. health care, among other industries."

Cottam has started her own firm for these social design projects, Participle.

Universal Voting Booth

From Norway (and via Core77):
Image via Kadabra: mock-up of a voting room with open booths to the left of the frame. The voters in the room are shown as white figures outlined in black: some are in the booths, some line up to deposit their orange ballots into boxes. The figures include women and men, a person with crutches, and a person whose wheelchair peeks out from under one of the booths.

Winners of a recent Norwegian State Design Competition called "Democracy by Design," KADABRA have designed a voting system that can be easily installed in the typical public places that are used for voting. The open booth, low console, and graphic images are the result of a process in which the designers interviewed what they call "elite" users-- I'm thinking that this translates to those with specific needs-- including people with visual, cognitive, and mobility concerns, as well as election volunteers and janitors. The result, they write, is "solutions that are for everyone’s best."

-Core77 1 Hour Design Competition: Voting Booth due Oct 30
-Marcia Lausen, Design for Democracy: Ballot and Election Design
-primer on disabilities and accessible voting from the Center for an Accessible Society.

people's design award winner

Zon Hearing Aid wins Cooper-Hewitt People's Design Award, a contest decided by online popular vote. An elegant, top-of-the-line (and top-priced) little gem. A sculptured, dull-silver wedge attaches behind the ear of this jewelry-like (though designed to disappear) hearing aid. Image above via zon (I'm not sure how to make a line above the o).

electronics of the future-- more touchy-feely?

I have posted a few times about how electronics can be hard to use-- touch screens, tiny numbers, etc. This is probably the #1 thing people mention when I talk to them about what products/spaces are inaccessible by design.

Image from C-Scout: hands demonstrating the smooth white Samsung Touch Sight Camera, which embosses images in Braille as well as providing a few seconds of sound to accompany each picture.

Here are some lovely prototypes for electronic gadgets designed for blind people and people w/ low vision. The article mentions a watch, a camera, a debit-card reader/PIN interface, and a Braille reader/writer that all integrate new digital approaches to tactile display. The article also mentions how these applications could improve usability for all, as is the mantra of Universal Design:
"Of course, many of these technologies can provide benefits to sighted people. For example, a tactile surface could be applied to a bedside clock, enabling one half of a couple to find out what time it is without disturbing the other."

Sunday, October 19, 2008

disability and metaphors

This is well-covered in the disability blog-world and in a lot of books on disability: disability and specific impairments are so often used in literature/movies/everyday speech as metaphors. I generally think of this as a thoughtless, uncritical thing-- for example, saying "blind rage" when you really mean something more specific. I like what Steven Kuusisto adds in a post about the movie "Blindness"-- here:

The film "Blindness" which is now in theaters offers the latest instance of what scholars David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder have called "narrative prosthesis" where in effect, disability is used as an artificial device to help what is otherwise a weak story line.

Blindness remains a frightening disability in no small measure because the literal condition, the disruption of the physical eye is invested with outworn symbolism that still resides in what the psychoanalyst Carl Jung called the cultural subconscious. People may know next to nothing about eye diseases but they know deep in their bones that there's something suggestive and darkly portentious about the blind.


There are of course real lives in the balance. As I have said many times previously on this blog the unemployment rate for the blind remains unacceptably high in the United States and around the world. The film "Blindness" or the execrable novel that birthed it are guilty of false disability figuration--aesthetic choices that can only further harm real people.

This also reminds me that I find "prosthesis" to be a really interesting metaphor too-- the collection Artificial Parts, Practical Lives: Cultural Histories of Prosthetics comments on this a little in ref. to Donna Haraway and other theories of technology and society, and it is prevalent in sci-fi too. I don't think we have to abandon all metaphors out of over-sensitivity... but I'm not sure how to unpack the meanings of prosthesis. I am also kind of intimidated by a lot of the theory that uses is, a la Haraway, so that probably doesn't help. I don't necessarily think being aware of disability (or any other social/political minority) issues means ending all use of metaphors-- it just means choosing words more carefully. Perhaps using "prosthetic" or "crutch" has different meaning if you really use a literal one.

as a side note, if I may gush, I love Kuusisto and his book Planet of the Blind-- which proves that one can talk about blindness in a lyrical way without resorting to lazy metaphor. I have been reading his blog for a while, and I love too the way he puts himself into the discussion-- in this recent post the title is "how many stories am I holding up?"; another time he joked about getting a t-shirt that said "I am not your metaphor." I dig it and would so like to take a class with him (he teaches writing and film at the U of Iowa).