Saturday, April 11, 2009


Since I write about it so often, I'm starting a new thread for posts on design.

I recently went with Wizard to choose some new glasses frames for him. It was pretty easy. We went to the shop, opened the door, walked in, and selected some absolutely stunning frames. It was easy because EVERYthing in the shop had grace, style, and beauty. The connection of glasses and disability resonates deeply in the disability world because of the way in which Justices Antonin Scalia and Stephen Breyer used them in a Supreme Court decision about the ADA. In trying to decide whether or not the ADA applied to those people whose impairments had been mitigated by, say, blood pressure medication or insulin, Scalia and Breyer made the following observations (NYT):
''If we were to say, 'You're right, your client is disabled,' is it then necessary to say that everyone who uses false teeth or glasses is disabled, or is there a way of drawing a line?'' Justice Breyer wondered.

Justice Antonin Scalia, removing his glasses and waving them in the air, observed that ''I couldn't do my current job without them.'' He continued: ''I guess it's nice if a majority of Americans can claim the benefit of the law. It's comforting. But it doesn't square with what Congress seemed to be talking about.'
Good questions? Perhaps. I prefer the twist that Tobin Siebers gave it in his essay, Disability In Theory (link is to google books PDF of the text; the essay was originally published in American Literary History.4 (2001): 737-54.). Siebers argues that we should not be trying to scale disability and resources in these ways; it is pointless trying to limit access to accommodation by trying to define who is and isn't disabled. When resources are scarce, access to the basics is dehumanizing. People become 'greedy' because they have to fight for every last drop of assistance that enables them to participate in the world. When that happens, the very world that we inhabit comes into question.

Anyway, that's a digression; I am more and more coming to see glasses signify on a more complicated level. The beautiful frames and technical lenses come to stand for another issue with which we deal on a daily basis: beauty. You can get beautiful glasses everywhere. Beautiful assistive equipment is another matter.

A reader sends along this article about Graham Pullin's Design Meets Disability. This paragraph grabs me: "Other than wearing glasses Pullin is not disabled himself, and he doesn't claim to speak for the disabled. "The issues around disability are very political and complex and loaded, and I'm not trying to make any statements about disability per se," says Pullin. "The message I'm simply trying to get across is that by actually embracing disability, and the issues disability puts to the forefront, it can unlock ideas about universal design."

The glasses and disability thing again? OK. It gets more tricky. When asked about models for disability and good design, Pullin answers:
I think eyeglasses are really interesting, in that they're so successful as exemplars in this area that we cease to think of them as design for disability. We don't think of them as the same as hearing aids or prosthetic hands. . . . I mean, there are statistics available for how many eyeglass frames are actually bought with just plain glass in them, with no prescription, for purely aesthetic and fashion and cultural reasons, which I think is remarkable.
I don't see glasses as design for disability; they are design for impairment. In the same way that a well-designed cane is design for impairment. It's an overemphasized distinction in our disability studies, right-on world, but in the outer world not marking the distinction leads to all kinds of tangles. Such as the one above. By designing for the impairment without the stigmatization that comes with disability, it has been possible to make glasses that are fashionable, unique, individual and individuating.

The same is true (though perhaps less so) with canes. The world of canes has seen design for impairment and or function. The result: beautiful hand carved canes/walking sticks, high tech hiking canes/walking sticks, funky, pretty, cool. The same is NOT true of the world of crutches. There's your basic ugly hospital crutch which rarely becomes a permanent fixture of anyone's life these days and your somewhat more individual Canadian/Lofstrand version. You can get them in different colours, sure, but the variety and coolness of canes is much more so than crutches. Why? Canes designed are for impairment and for enhancing athletic and everyday function; crutches are designed for disability and for compensation of broken parts. The conceptual difference is critical to the design.

Pullin continues: "Disability could actually be a source of incredible inspiration for design, not just the looming legal obligation the design industry is bracing itself for. . . . Disability can force some new questions onto the agenda that can actually open up new ways of thinking, and not just in terms of better accessibility."

I agree with the perception that disability might be seen as a "looming legal obligation" (alliteration is so effective, no?), but I don't think that this is the way to go about better design for either the disability community or the wider world. The "inspiration"-thing is my tip-off. If you repeatedly use disability (and not impairment) as an "inspiration," you may end up with great table legs and white Macs. But if you do, it is not necessarily because you have made a concerted conscious effort to work with what disability teaches; it is, rather, because randomness and chance opportunity have gifted you with their presence. These examples are exceptions, not the rule. That hit or miss process does nothing for either disabled people or the larger world.

Siebers asks in that same essay, "What would it mean to esteem the disabled body for what it really is?" I ask, "What would it mean to design for disabled bodies for what they really are?" Here, I think the choice of disabled over impaired body is more important. I am asking what it would mean to design for the impaired body that participates in disability culture, arts, rights, politics, friendships, worlds (and is thus disabled). It seems to me that designing for this kind of creature would create a different kind of experience than designing for that person who can't walk and thus uses a wheelchair.

What about the non-disabled world? It irks me that the central marketing points for universal design seem to be that we all may become disabled one day -- you will need this (i.e., fear) and we may all see something different and better (true, but not enough). Fear is not good enough for all the obvious reasons. But I also insist that the "disability will inspire us to things that are better for all over us argument" is as weak and as ineffective as the fear point. While, factually, it is true that certain products designed initially for those whose bodies are less than perfect have succeeded (think all the OXO hand grip products), such items only succeed in the larger marketplace if they have been detached from their crippled origins. Everything/anything that even whiffs of disability will fail. I worry about access. Will the disabled still have access to/benefit from these new inspirations or will we be further isolated not, this time, by the way society responds to impairment, but by the designers themselves, the designers who want their ideas and products to succeed in a world that is repulsed by crippledom?

What should a designer do? Go with disability in *our* sense. And expand it so that you are designing for a world in which people are fully functional beings, a world in which a single product responds to all our senses (or as many as possible). Make human variation part of your plan! Make a multidimensional product that enhances our function in all of our dimensions -- even the ones not immediately relevant to your understanding of the function of the product.

Oh, and, Mr. Pullin? Assistive technologies tend to be part of the disabled person, yes. But they are part of "our" bodies; we see them as part of our bodies. It is true that other people may see them as part of our bodies, as well, yes. But other people don't matter; they don't live with our technologies. Fundamentally, initially, principally, and in principle, they are ours; we own them. In all senses. We may request stuff based on our interactions with others, but we are the users. Design with us in mind, and things will go a lot better.

I've ordered a copy of Pullin's book. My hopes aren't high, but I'll let you know.


  1. glad to see you write about this-- it's something I try to write about in my blog too (this post is one attempt to muddle through some of the issues-- design from both user and designer standpoints).

    I see the glasses comparison out there a lot too, and it strikes me as such a useful lesson about the difference between impairment and disability, as well as about the arbitrary nature of these classifications. Just like "disabled," "assistive" is a construction: as Katherine Ott writes in this book, all technology is assistive. I think it's an issue of when certain functions (what the technology assists in doing) are associated with something odd, something special, something non-normal -- i.e. the way most of the design world thinks about disability, as a "special" topic and often a legal burden. It sounds like Pullin is still keeping disability in the "special topics" category, rather than confronting the fact that a wide variety of sensory, physical, and cognitive abilities exist within the user population. I'll have to check it out to see-- thanks for the tip.

  2. Great post. I am aghast at the lack of understanding about these points. I was once able-bodied and I could have gotten this, why can't others? The kids who had to touch the fire to understand it would burn.Looking forward to what you find out.

  3. Really great post! I think glasses is a good example of how a product went beyond being just a technology to correct impairment to a stylish cool accessory that helps to express one's individualism. There should be more of this in designing assistive technology products. Assistive products should not be viewed from just the practical point of view. As you said they can be part of disabled user... so shouldn't they have design, individual and expressive value to them as well.
    Also, you talked a lot in your post about the difference between impairment and disability...I think the notion of disability is so subjective and it's kind of illusive... What does it mean to be disabled? Are you disabled when you can't do something the majority of people can? Are you disabled when you want to do something but you just can't? In any case, disability is just a label created by the society... we are all abled in some ways and not abled in others...

  4. Very interesting post. The question of terminology (disability vs. impairment) is a very interesting one, and as someone who isn’t fully versed in all its nuances I hope you’ll forgive any unintentional slips.

    Having read 'Design Meets Disability,' I hope that reading the book clarifies Pullin's position - as I see it, not at all a call for universal 'one size fits all' design, but an exploration of how engaging with disability while exercising some designerly restraint can produce things that are both accessible and desirable to the group (or individual or population) that inspired it and beyond.

    It's admirable to try and design something that everyone can use, but quite different to try and design something that everyone will like. One of the examples in Pullin’s book is Naoto Fukasawa’s CD player for muji. Not to everyone’s taste I’m sure (and isn’t that kind of the point?) but beautifully inclusive, witty and simple.

    I wonder what you mean by 'detached from their crippled origins.' If it's a case of aesthetics - employing a more conventionally acceptable industrial design language, for example - then I guess we have to ask ourselves why the design language of products designed initially for disabled people isn’t seen as acceptable outside of that market. Is it because of its associations with disability and wider society’s unfair distaste at this, or because during design aesthetic considerations have been overlooked in favour of taxing functionality issues? I don’t know the answer to that, but aesthetics and function don’t have to be mutually exclusive… In fact, I think that some of the most successful designs come about when the two aren’t treated separately but as part of the same concern.

  5. I don't think the narrative is totally straightforward for glasses, especially for kids - it seems like they were much more of a stigmatizing thing 50 years ago. Not just a tool to help with an impairment but a fairly important signifier of disability in children. So the way kids with glasses were shown in media is the same way disabled kids are shown. Or with similarities, anyway.