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Design Meets Disability

I found Graham Pullin’s challenge to the engineers, designers and artists of the world to come together and rethink the way we approach the creation of objects that address disability fascinating. It seems a challenge tailor made to the ITP student body.

Pullin states that the status quo in the industry is currently function above form to the point of negating design itself. The technology is king and design focuses on invisibility. The medical and engineering community has ignored the artist and designer communities in the creation of it’s wheel chairs, prosthetic limbs, and hearing aids. The artists themselves have generally been disinterested in a field of design that prizes invisibility.

The industry further works on an assumption that all their clients want the same thing – basically aids that attempt to call the least amount attention to themselves. This has led to conventions such as the peachy pink and clammy plastics of the prosthetic world. But as Pullin points out, not all users want the same thing and these objects would benefit from the variety the creativity of artists and designers could bring. He offers as an example an amputee who dreaded the moment when someone would notice that she had a prosthetic hand, the illusion of it’s pink plastic only lasting so long. For her, Pullin would recommend an artist designed ostentatious golden prosthetic, one that would immediately identify itself as man made, but also suggest beauty and individuality. He suggests turning the classic designer’s challenge, the chair, into a wheelchair challenge, an ingenious suggestion.

Pullin identifies the current most successful crossover of design and disability as the eyeglasses. In the past couple decades, eyeglasses have gone from medical device to fashion accessory, used by the visually impaired and the fully abled alike. Glasses come in a dizzying variety of colors and styles, and have been embraced by the trendy and fashionable worlds. What if wheelchairs could find the same success, Pullin asks. What if people walked around with trendy, individualized hearing aids in their ears?

Pullin’s book put in mind examples from two of my other classes this week. In our puppets class we studied the work of the German Dada artists who created artworks with puppets and were highly influenced by  the horrors of World War I and their encounters with amputees returning from battle. One example of such a work was Heartfield and Grosz’s “The Conformist Turned Wild Heartfield” (1920), a mannequin made to suggest a soldier crippled by war, various antiques attached to replace nonexistent limbs. Pullin’s book also has me thinking of our reading for Pcomp last week – the argument that beautiful things work better, made by Norman in his Emotion & Design article. Pullin seems to suggest the same, that aids that were more attractive would have greater usage and functionality for everyone.

The marriage of fashion and disability design that Pullin suggests is interesting and alluring. It could potentially be a successful endeavor, both in making money and in creating more acceptance in the culture for these aids. But it also feels  a bit problematic, potentially fetishizing these objects and enclosing them in an industry driven by consumer culture and advertising. When I look at the pictures in the book of Aimee Mullin’s beautiful prosthetic legs made of solid glass or ornately carved wood, I am envious. A part of me wistfully thinks “I wish I was an amputee so that I could wear those.” When I think more about it, it is quite a disquieting thought.

 

Norah Solorzano

953 comments to Design Meets Disability

  • Valerie Chen

    I’m not sure that the biomedical engineering /prosthetic industry operates on an assumption that its clients are primarily interested in camouflaging their disabilities. I’m not sure that they think very much about how the product looks at all. I think the industry is based in hard science and therefore prioritizes prosthetic function over form. In terms of appearance, the easiest and most logical option is to make a prosthetic look like the thing it is replacing. When doing this in a cost-effective matter, it’s probably not going to look that great. Now, here is an instance Masahiro Mori’s Uncanny Valley, which Nathan Shedroff brought up in his presentation in class this week. Prosthetics approximate the lost parts of the human body, but because they are an imperfect approximation, they frighten us. “Us” being not only the public but also the wearer himself.

    I lost four fingers in a car accident when I was seven years old. My parents were terrified that I would never fit in or be normal afterwards, so my father and I traveled from Los Angeles to San Francisco so that I could have personalized hand prosthesis made. I remember waiting in a lobby full of people missing parts of their hands. I sat for hours over the course of days while a young lady painstakingly hand-painted the prosthetic to be a near-perfect mirror of my other hand, complete with fingernails and knuckle creases. It was rubbery and really had no intended function beyond camouflage. When we took it home, I hated it. First, because it was very uncomfortable, especially in the wrist area. Second, because it scared me. I never wore it, even though it undoubtedly cost my parents an ungodly sum out-of-pocket. We wrapped it in a towel and put it away in a cupboard, where it continued to scare the living daylights out of me every time I forgot it was there and re-found it throughout the rest of my life. I’m glad I rejected the prosthetic when I did. If you’re not looking for functionality and only for a sense of “sameness,” you will be disappointed. If prosthetics as we know them, even the top-of-the-line, handcrafted ones that exist purely for being looked at, bring us no joy or sense of being the same as everyone else, then indeed – we should open our minds to reconsidering their aesthetic.

    I don’t think that an amputee necessarily wants an ostentatious gold prosthetic. For me, the thought of such an instrument is a little horrifying. However, I am still interested in the idea of making them look different from how they do now. I suspect that the greatest barrier for “styled” medical aids (and what separates them from a product category such as glasses) is that these products are highly engineered to fit one specific person and are already very expensive. I’m not an expert in product development and manufacture, but I have a feeling that when design and fashion get involved, prices go up, insurance companies balk, and performance quality of the product probably goes down.

    However, I do think that a working variation of this vision are the blades that amputees run on, most recently seen on Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee who ran in the Olympics on behalf of South Africa this year. The blades don’t try to look like human legs and they’re much more pleasing to the eye as a result. They look futuristic and space-age and impressive and they work extraordinarily well. They marry form and function in a really admirable way and the people who wear them are perceived as superhuman and stronger than the rest of us. I think that’s the ideal.

  • Nancy

    Terrific post and comment. Great things to explore:The issues of functionality, the fetish/pursuit of sameness.

    Norah.. your last sentences…

    When I look at the pictures in the book of Aimee Mullin’s beautiful prosthetic legs made of solid glass or ornately carved wood, I am envious. A part of me wistfully thinks “I wish I was an amputee so that I could wear those.” When I think more about it, it is quite a disquieting thought.

    Really envious? Explain a little more. It seems a little flippant..but maybe not. It is a disquieting thought

  • nms340

    Envy is one of the many things I feel when looking at them, perhaps more accurate would be covetousness. And those are the sorts of responses the fashion industry hopes to engender in the consumer public. Their beautiful women in glossy photographs are designed to create desire and covetousness in people to sell them clothes and shoes and perhaps some day prosthetics, as Pullin proposes. But this is part of that problematic slippery slope in bringing the fashion world and the medical aid world together.

    Aimee Mullin is a beautiful girl with beautiful legwear. The desire she engenders gives me that strange thought, but while it is only a momentary thought that I don’t believe I could ever act upon, I think it is not impossible to imagine that someday someone else would.

    Women already go to extreme lengths to wear the sky high heels currently popular. There are numerous cosmetic procedures that are becoming more and more common as high end shoes become more fanciful and less functional. Among them are the “Cinderella procedure,” which surgically narrows the foot, and toe jobs nicknamed “Loub” jobs after high end designer Christian Louboutin, to make the shoes less painful. Bringing this side of the fashion world and the disability design world together is a problematic proposition.

    The example of Oscar Pistorius as the new model for good prosthetic design and his popularity with the public is an intriguing and inspiring one. It was also an interesting twist that there was some backlash from the field of competitors complaining about his superhuman legs. The legs inspired admiration and compassion from many, but again were a source of envy from other runners who worried he might have an unfair advantage.

    I read an interesting work of fiction a couple years ago, Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love. In it a very charismatic yet troubled young man born with unformed limbs that resemble flippers inspires a cult of followers and devotes who submit to slowly having their limbs removed to become closer to and more like their leader. Certainly this was an exaggerated and extreme situation, pure science fiction. But the extremes may be worth pondering when bringing together disability design and the power of the consumer industry.