A blog about universal and accessible design

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

speaking of iPhones (or at least touch screens)

From the NY Times: Google's Phone Apps for the Blind, and Everyone Else.

Pretty much a classic Universal Design scenario-- two engineers (one of whom is blind) at Google develop an option on a phone where the touch-screen does not require you to look at it (wherever you touch becomes the "center"). Presto, it works for everyone who is trying to do stuff on a touch screen without looking at it, like while driving.

It makes sense when you design interfaces to think of a broad group of users. The Amazon Kindle, which seems like such a great product for blind/low-vision users, has an audio option but not an accessible interface (voice prompts, etc). Opportunity missed, PR screwed up. (hat tip)

Sunday, April 5, 2009

I hate my iPhone

or at least Virginia Heffernan does (I don't have one-- thanks, I'm online too much already).

When I talk to anyone over 60 or so, the cell phone issue often comes up. These things don't work that well for a lot of people-- they are small and hard to see and hard to program. The market seems to provide for the range of preferences-- don't like the iPhone, get a Blackberry.. or a Jitterbug, pictured above. The letters are larger and "click" when you push them, the screen is stripped down to the basics with few add-ons or menus, and there's an ultra-simple keypad option to use the phone just for emergencies.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

aimee mullins

via the SDS listserv-- Aimee Mullins, who "cheetah" prosthetic limbs have been much photographed, speaking at TED:

"the prosthetic limb doesn't represent the need to replace loss anymore. It can stand as a symbol that the wearer has the power to create whatever they want to create... they can become the architects of their own identities."
I mean, she veers into sci-fi a little bit ("it's about augmentation") and her solution is not really one for everyone (duh). But that she is putting out this really jarring, antithetical image about what prosthetic limbs mean and what the disabled body does with them -- seems really important, and quite beautiful. I also can't help noting how she has worked with artists and designers -- creative worlds where fantasy and sci-fi often lean on pretty flat images of disability-- in a way where she clearly represents herself and sees it as a collaboration.

Also: HOT shoes. wow.
I have been slow to update this blog lately-- oh, the cycle of academic work and procrastination and guilt!

But here is what I've been working on..

The main work I have been doing lately is about the do-it-yourself and small-production technical work for and by people with disabilities during the 1950s-60s. This time period, I find, is interesting for the history of disability-related design because it is a kind of transition time: on the one hand, people with severe physical disabilities (spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy, polio) were more and more likely to live long and healthy lives with mobility impairments. Medical professionals and policy groups advocated "independent living" as a better choice for recovery and social order, but living in homes and communities was not so easy for folks who used wheelchairs, canes, crutches, respirators, and had manual disabilities. As a result, a variety of gadgets and gizmos appeared to bridge the gap between the ambitions and interests of people with disabilities and the world that was not designed well for them.

A lot of these were published by doctors or other rehabilitation experts as part of an effort to ease the transition from clinic to home, like Howard Rusk and Eugene Taylor's
Living With a Disability (Blakiston Co, 1953), which featured low-tech options as make-your-own utensils with secure straps:
(image: black-and-white image shows forks and spoons with metal straps and finger sheaths attached to their handles, scattered on a black ground)

Rusk and Taylor also acknowledged the potential usefulness of new materials and gadgets of the postwar consumer culture, such as children's drink cups (aka sippy-cups) and electric razors.

(images: two layouts from Rusk and Taylor's book, with black-and-white images laid out around text. Left, three cups: one white plastic cup with a handle, one clear plastic with a white lid and with a hole and a straw, and one with and hand holding a cup with an attached metal handle with a large loop. There is also a clear plastic saucer on the page.

Right, a two-page layout with men shaving with electric razors: one uses a prosthetic hand, while the others hold handles and loops attached to the appliances.)

These kinds of technical fixes for day-to-day independent living also featured heavily in the content of the Toomey J Gazette, a publication "for by and about respiratory polios" that ran from 1958-1969 (before it became the Rehabilitation Gazette). The Toomey J allowed contributors a forum to share very personalized, creative approaches to making their mid-century home life work for wheelchair, respirator, and rocking bed living. The solutions were wide-ranging and sometimes fanciful, like:

(image: an ink drawing of an array of different mouthstick designs, each attributed to its designer. Splayed out in a fan from a central pair of lips, the materials include eye-dropper tips with dowels stuck in them, cigarette holders, even the rubber heel of a child's or doll's shoe to be held in the teeth. From the Toomey J Gazette, Spring 1960.)

Other contributions were more technical, like a Citroen 2 CV that had been cut up to make a flatbed platform for driving in a wheelchair: the car was equipped with two sets of hand controls and a swiveling floor so that the driver could turn around to drive in reverse, rather than having to crane his neck.
(image: three newsprint images of Fred Taberlet and his Citroen, a convertible-top car with an open space for driver and his wheelchair.)

In my dissertation, I write about these adaptations, adjustments, and inventions as part of the broader social context for the disability rights movement: this homespun work is a tacit assertion of the right for people with disabilities to operate and move within mainstream American spaces-- the "right to be in the world" that Jacobus tenBroek declared in a 1966 essay in the California Law Review.

I'll be talking about this research in two upcoming conference talks:

Technocultures and Identity Conference (Mid-America American Studies Association meeting)
Center for Ethnic Studies and the Arts, The University of Iowa
Friday, April 3, 12:30 pm
Panel: Medical Technologies and Identity
Kirkwood Room, 257 IMU
Chair: Michael Krysko (Kansas State)
“Chemical Technology and Emerging Identities: The Role of Technology
and Rhetoric in the Construction of the Hyperactive Child,” Jonathan
Hansen (Iowa)
“Technology and Disability Identity: The Toomey J. Gazette, 1959-1969,”
Bess Williamson (Delaware)

Material Culture Symposium for Emerging Scholars
Winterthur Museum, Wilmington, DE
Saturday, April 25, 3 pm
Panel: The Private Lives of Public Objects
Emily Voss, Cooperstown Graduate Program (Museum Studies)
"Astronauts, Aliens, Rockets, and Ray Guns: Space Toys and American Children 1950-1977"
Bess Williamson, University of Delaware (History of American Civilization)
"Doing It Themselves: Gadgets for and by People with Disabilities, 1945-1970"Drew Sawyer, Columbia University (Art History and Archaeology)
"The Queer Life of Crisco"Commentator: Peter Stallybrass, Professor in the Humanities and Professor of English and of Comparative Literature and Literary Theory, University of Pennsylvania