design meets disability

Over the past several years, a fashion phenomenon has swept over the NBA’s top talent. Russell Westbrook, Dwayne Wade, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Lebron James, and many others have begun to show up to post-game conferences wearing empty frames. The glassless glasses signify that an enabling aide like glasses has completely shifted from functional appliance to aesthetic fashion accessory, a striking contrast to the stigma of glasses of the last century. Perhaps the mass appeal of frames on super star athletes is that they project an (oftentimes false) image of disability on the athlete, humanizing them and allowing consumers and fans to connect to their brand.

Glasses are perhaps the easiest example of design for disability to comment upon, since visual impairment is so prevalent. In Design Meets Disability, Graham Pullin makes a case for nurturing the natural tensions within design culture between pragmatists and artists. Though Pullin focuses on design of objects for the disabled, his argument is easily expanded to all design disciplines; good design comes from a process in which constraints are simultaneously taken seriously and playfully challenged.

Traditionally, design for disability has focused on enabling ability while attracting as little attention as possible. However, the term disability can be qualified on many levels based on the general presence of the disability itself. For example, visual impairment as a disability affects an enormous percentage of the population and for this very reason, it is almost not even considered a disability anymore. A disability such as amputation however, is far less common and has a larger potential to alienate its subject thus presenting a more difficult challenge of projecting a positive image without invisibility. Regardless of the type of disability, Pullin demonstrates through the examples of eye wear, hear-wear, and prosthetics, populations of people with disabilities can be every bit as diverse as society in general. This diversity carries with it the added dimension of taste, which requires a range of styles.

Perhaps we are approaching a point where we can overcome the technical limitations of industrial manufacture to accommodate taste at a new level. Custom circuitry and on-demand 3D printing could enable disability designers to create design systems instead of products in which the end-user has control of the outcome. A rough example of this type of system is Nervous System‘s custom jewelry interfaces, cell-cycle and radiolaria. These systems allow the end-user to modify the object within a system of parameters and constraints to make a piece of jewelry that suits their individual taste while upholding principles of good design. In this scenario, the role of the designer actually remains unchanged since the same rigor of respecting and exploring the constraints is still present in the system. What’s different is the mode of manufacture.

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