D&T7: Kaitlyn Debiasse – Designing for Disability

“I spend most of the time being angry,” was the opening line of Kaitlyn Debiasse’s lecture on Friday afternoon. Kaitlyn is a design tutor here at the GSA and here she was referring to the lack of accessible design in the world, specifically the fact that the vast majority of things are designed for the 90th percentile man. This means that lots of essential everyday products are clumsy and difficult to use for those that don’t fit the ‘average man’ criteria. In some cases, like cars for example, they can be unsafe and potentially even deadly. Kaitlyn provided a thought-provoking outlook on designing for disability, supplemented by some successful examples of accessible design and her recent project bringing prosthetic hands to amputees in Jordan. 

Listening to Kaitlyn talk passionately about the lack of design for disability was eye-opening. It has since made me appreciate quite how difficult it can be to go about your daily business if you have a disability. An easy example to recognise this is the lack of wheelchair access throughout Glasgow. It would be near impossible, or rather incredibly difficult, to be wheelchair bound studying PDE in Glasgow. Not only do our lectures at the University span across the West End of the city, but we also frequently have to travel between the University and the School of Art. I cycle normally, but otherwise it is a 30-minute walk or a 10-minute subway ride between them. This would be all very well if the Glasgow subway had wheelchair access, but only two of the fifteen stops have lifts to the platforms. Kaitlyn pointed out that the very lecture theatre that we were sat in had required you to come up about 6 steps into the room. My flatmate broke his foot playing football in August and it was debilitating for him. We live in a third floor flat so for the first few weeks he couldn’t really leave without great discomfort. These buildings (my tenement flat and the GSA Bourdon building) and the Glasgow subway are old, so you can almost forgive them for not being very disability compliant, however the latter has been under constant ‘modernisation’ and yet it still has very limited access for wheelchair users. Making design inclusive is something that must be considered when designing anything. It is rare that designing something to be inclusive for disabilities hinders regular users.

Kaitlyn spoke about her recent project in Jordan, and how a team of designers, under her management, were able to give bespoke prosthetic hands to those who have lost limbs to the conflict. The prosthetics were 3D printed from open source designs. 3D printing the parts allowed them to create a single bespoke part without any tooling costs. You can produce one part, alter it and make another, without seeing your costs shoot through the roof. When designing for children, being able to freely customise the hands so that the kids would want to use them, was an essential part of the process. This project sounds like it was a success for the most part, however one of the biggest challenges they faced was a social issue rather than a design issue. The common feeling amongst the designers was that despite the small benefits that they were providing for some amputees, the money and time would be better spent giving those people basic amenities that they were lacking. A social understanding of where and who you are designing for seems to be a critical consideration.

The final point I want to discuss is the process of ‘co-design’. This is where the design process occurs with the end user in collaboration the whole time. I had never heard it referred to as co-design before. For personal or bespoke products such as prosthetics, where the functionality of the product is reliant on it being completely tailored to the user, it can be a hugely useful tool. Rachael Sleight’s bespoke bag company, Burnbank (the focus of blog D&T4), uses this design tool to provide the customer with an element of control within the project and to encourage participation, ultimately increasing the quality and user satisfaction of the end product.

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