The benefits of interdisciplinary perspectives to tackle every day problems have long been advocated in many walks of life. Without the influence of arts and sciences, how could solutions for any situation be sustainable at all? Consider for example, any given smart phone. Whilst packing in a plethora of technical necessities, they couldn’t possibly be usable if they were not so beautiful somehow. Aesthetically pleasing in the way they look, feel and among other things, enable access to capture and edit photos, videos and music. Not because we all consider ourselves serious food photographers or music enthusiasts, but because these things are intertwined in our lives and we are somehow pleasured by the act of sharing our experiences.
Why then, when I think of assistive equipment (hand splints, walking aids, adapted keyboards) do I sigh in disappointment that they are not so sexy? Actually, they are not sexy at all. They serve a functional purpose, often engineered with physiological goals in mind. Mass-produced to keep costs low, understandably.
In his book ‘Design meets disability’, Graham Pullin invites us to construe new perspectives for the design of adaptive aids and equipment that, refreshingly, alert us to the fact that different people might actually have different tastes, shaped by their age, gender, social class, environment as well as many other factors. One example that I often recall is the account of the athlete, model and actress Aimee Mullins, whose collaborations with Alexander McQueen and Dazed & Confused magazine present a lasting, iconic image of Mullins wearing nothing but her carbon fibre running legs and tracksuit bottoms. This and a latter image of her jaw-dropping, hand-crafted wooden legs carve out an image in the mind that is difficult to forget. Not because they present her as an icon for disability, but because (for me) they present her as an icon for people.
Pullin’s design thinking approach invites us to consider designing all sorts of adaptive equipment and aids from new perspectives, for example, creations that are fashion pieces, designed to be exhibited and worn with pride: to be noticed rather than discretely hidden.
This perspective makes me consider how disability is communicated in different contexts; whether there are differences in how this is projected through the social model of disability; and how far this goes in changing a person’s views on how they construe disability.
I recently visited a show at the Copperfield Gallery, London, with works that were collectively framed around the title ‘compassion not gain’. Whilst on first look I thought that this was probably intended to rouse empathy for disability, the arrangement of pieces communicated something far deeper. A gilded wheelchair entitled ‘Apollo’s chariot’ positioned facing a limply hanging parachute (‘Fall, where the birds die’), next to a wooden ballet barre inscribed in Braille with a poem by Frida Kahlo that described overcoming frustration through strength of will, suggested that all bodies are vulnerable at some point. Whilst the artist David Escalona sensitively projecting fragility in human kind, his pieces highlighted that all forms of struggle are ever changing and lie on a continuum. If it is in fact society that enforces disabling barriers rather than individualised impairments, perhaps a golden chariot does accurately represent a wheelchair for a specific individual or perhaps the words of Kahlo’s poetry can accurately depict the emotional and physical struggle of a ballet dancer.
These examples are only a few of many that highlight the value of seeing everyday obstacles through a different lens; a design thinking approach to consider known situations in new ways. More on design thinking to follow.