A blog about universal and accessible design

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Other Disabilities

It's pretty rare to come across much writing/thinking about design for disabilities other than mobility and dexterity impairments: paralysis, arthritis, etc. Here on Design Observer (one of the best design commentary sites around), a reflection on design and OCD by Chappell Ellison, a designer based in New York. Not surprisingly, the essay won a 2009 AIGA Winterhouse Award for Design Writing & Criticism.

Mainly, the essay is a poignant memoir of difficult objects in Ellison's brother's life as he lives with OCD. Laundry baskets with endless holes to clean, restaurant tablecloths rife with germs. But the last few paragraphs address how and whether designers can respond to this particular disease. Universal Design, she (I think?) admits, may not be a useful paradigm, and ultimately it will never be possible to anticipate all of her brother's (let alone the other thousands/millions who have compulsive disorders) object-related concerns. I'm thinking that even Ellison's awareness of such compulsions probably makes her a better designer, aware of the unintended consequences of surface, texture, and form. As she writes,

As a designer, I know that it is impossible to consider every tiny percentage of each special interest group when creating a new product... To create an object for someone who fears tactility and physical interaction is the sort of assignment that turns a designer’s world upside down.

But maybe that is part of the point - design cannot address every variation in human bodies and experiences. Universal Design even has its problems for people with mobility issues - many blind people who use canes have a harder time determining the end of the sidewalk with a curb cut; some people prefer stairs to sloping walkways, etc. Disabilities that affect cognition and behavior are even harder to address and anticipate through design. But as this article suggests, the aim of acknowledging, if not "solving," disability in design might prove to be a fruitful one.

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