PERSPECTIVES | Designing with purpose

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The popularity of design in today’s modern world has given rise to terms that are frequently used, but easily confused. With roots in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), “accessible design is a design process in which the needs of people with disabilities are specifically considered.” Universal design includes “the design of products and environment to be usable by all people,” not just those with disabilities. Usable design describes the ease and efficiency of a product’s use, yet may not include people with disabilities in the design process.  

Inclusive designers, on the other hand, consult with members of excluded communities in order to create universal, accessible, and/or usable products. “While practicing inclusive design should make a product more accessible, it’s not a process for meeting all accessibility standards...Universal design is one-size-fits-all. Inclusive design is one-size-fits-one.”

Though the differences may seem minimal, the distinctions are significant. Products that may be considered “useless inventions, lazy products, or pointless gadgets” can actually be life changing for people with disabilities. These products provide not only assistance, but independence. “[Instead of having] to go to someplace that requires a lot of assistance and ultimately a lot of money, these little things can make huge differences in people’s quality of life, enabling them to be independent and have a sense of self-worth,” says Greg Hartley, a faculty member at the University of Miami’s physical therapy department.

Lack of accessible and stylish clothing can also be a barrier to independence for people with disabilities. “In addition to providing independence, confidence and dignity…apparel can impact a person's job prospects...And a lack of appropriate clothing can be a barrier," according to Kerri McBee-Black, a professor of textile and apparel management at the University of Missouri.

Advancements in technology, access to new products, and online communities have made communication for people with disabilities easier. Using Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)—who doesn’t love Siri?—on consumer devices is now considered mainstream. Availability and prices of products have dropped dramatically, providing access to more people. “Parents [can] now make their own decisions without relying on therapists or funding. They were elated and felt liberated by [sic] lightweight and affordable option[s].”

Even the International Symbol of Access has entered the design debate, leading to the creation of the “accessible icon,” an updated image featuring the stick figure leaning forward, symbolizing movement. Cathy Ludlum, who has spinal muscular atrophy preferred the old symbol. “The old symbol leaves everything up to the imagination,” she said. “The new symbol seems to say that independence has everything to do with the body, which it doesn’t. Independence is who you are inside.” 

“I hope the new symbol can bring about conversation as to what is necessary for a person with disability needs in their community,” says Brendon Hildreth, a wheelchair user and advocate. The change of the design may be minor, but the conversations it sparked are powerful.