IKEA’s new ThisAbles project, a collaboration with two Israeli nonprofits to customize their products for people living with special needs and disabilities, is one example of a multinational creating essential adaptations for a more diverse user base—something that should become common practice across industries.
While there are solutions on the market for some people who tackle daily tasks with more difficulty than most, the differently abled are often grouped as a kind of “common minority.” Designing in this way cannot meet the needs of everyone, as one size does not, in fact, fit all.
My father’s best friend, Kevin, is a 40-year-old computer engineer who is beyond the range of Universal Design’s reach due to several disabilities that are both rare and quite severe. They limit his range of motion, his dexterity, as well as his independence. He has arthrogryposis, which leaves his elbows fused, as well as scoliosis, which limits his range of motion to below shoulder level. Along with this, Kevin had both of his legs amputated at a young age.
Many people like Kevin end up relying entirely on bespoke design or hacked personal solutions just for the privilege of completing everyday tasks. Kevin can get in and out of work and complete other tasks by himself, but he has great difficulty dressing independently. The only solution he had tried was a product he described as a “crucifix”—both physically painful and aesthetically woeful. So he was dependent on his wife to dress him; if she was at work early, he was up early too.
When I was applying to study product design at Ireland’s National College of Art and Design, a student guiding me through my portfolio submission told me about a design competition in which they designed a pen holder that allowed their partner to write again. To me, this was mind-blowing: With a simple device, someone who hadn’t written in 15 years now could sign his own name. I realized that I could also help make simple things that can create big changes to someone’s daily life.
Recently, through a European design challenge hosted by Fixperts, I was given the opportunity to design a product to help Kevin dress independently. The solution my team and I created was a pulley mechanism that utilized Kevin’s most comfortable range of movement, a skiing motion, to pull t-shirts and jumpers over his head. The device would clip onto the backside of his clothing before being pulled up by the mechanism, which allowed Kevin to dip his head in, he would then turn and pull once again to release both the clothing and himself. Kevin’s response was complete awe: He had told us, at the beginning, that if we could get a device to work, it would mean 100 percent independence for him.
Our design used minimal components so that anyone could recreate the solution at a low cost, through the plans Fixperts had open-sourced. The design can be reconstructed, with the user community modifying, improving and giving it further uses. The design is then advanced not for market value creation, but for user value creation.
This ability to open-source design can create economically feasible and inclusive solutions for those outside the reach of Universal Design—those that we might call the uncommon minorities. TeamUnlimbited – a 3D printing prosthetics company that provides the recipient’s devices for free, open-sources its design blueprints, giving access to anyone. A collaboration between British volunteers Drew Murray and Stephen Davies, they tackle the exorbitant costs of bionic prosthetics by building low-cost, low-fidelity forearms and hands. (The minimum requirement to be able to use their design is to have a functioning elbow.) The limbs are especially good for children—outgrowing it is not a problem due to how easily they can reprint a larger version to suit your now taller or alternative body type.
Of course, any progress in technology—including the ability to open-source designs—can open doors to misuse or debatable release of information. A prominent output of open-sourced designs is 3D printing; some morally questionable blueprints have been released in the past. Cases such as the Liberator, a 3D printed gun made of 16 pieces and a nail designed by a law student, Cody Wilson, have led to a debate around what should be released for public access and how we control both the quality and quantity of the distributed information.
Open-sourcing healthcare-related design solutions for uncommon minorities also requires a balance between accessibility to niche products and health and safety standards. Design that prioritizes safe conditions distributed through open-sourced kits using new economic models can help make this feasible.
It’s tough to find funding in areas of design like this; an even more difficult challenge is finding a way to sustain month to month activity long-term. Perhaps there’s a future where proactive multinationals like IKEA begin to create a more modular accessible range of products for all in society. If not, open-source platforms and safety organizations will have to work together to create sustainable economic models for designers hacks to meet the real needs of those facing challenging and distinct disabilities.