Public image, private style by Michael Shamash

Listen to Michael Shamash’s talk at our ESRC seminar Translational practices and the operationality of universal design.

The relationship between the disabled person and the design of products is complex.  The reality is that disabled peoples’ wants and needs are seen as problems and not challenges or, more radically, the norm. The disabled person historically inhabited the hospital and residential institution where aesthetics were not an issue and where they lay hidden from society. The institution’s needs set the agenda. Disabled people were not valued customers, hospitals were. Goods for disabled people have, as a result, been medicalised. They shout illness, problems and misery. They are clunky and sad.

As a person of restricted growth, I have become painfully aware of the lack of products that are available to make one’s life easier. I had always accepted that the stepladder I use had a range of design flaws. I simply accepted that no seating was ideal, either too high off the ground or set so far back that you looked as if perpetually slouching and unable to hoist yourself up, or that storage was often too high and there was never an adequate implement with which to reach. A bread knife is invaluable and you become fully aware of the theory of levers and pulleys, pushing and pulling, repelling and attracting.

At the moment due to a knee problem, my mobility has become more restricted and I become increasingly aware of how little thought is paid in the built and designed environment to the disabled person and the different body. Need is in inverse proportion to the availability, and what is available is resolutely unstylish. Due to my difficulty in getting into the bath I have just had a bath lift installed.  It is white and plastic, with its workings a crude rechargeable plastic control panel, and is supplied by the glamorously titled, Medequip. It is essential but ugly. For most, bathing is presented as an elegant experience, luxuriating in a long bath pampered with oils and lotions. For the disabled person the answer is to provide not baths designed in a studio in London or Milan but purely functional equipment constructed on an industrial estate in Hemel Hempstead.

Everywhere you look there is a world of unfulfilled promise. Simple remedies could be incorporated into existing design that would liberate the lives of disabled people. I received a leaflet about devices to put socks on. The equipment is a bare metal rod connected to a plastic frame. It says orthopaedic, not ease and elegance. It is often remarked that you can tell a person’s bearing from their shoes but you can certainly tell a person’s disablement from their, “gutter tights and stocking aid”.

As an antidote I went in 2008, to Birmingham to the NEC and Naidex, the major exhibition of aids and equipment. I wanted to see the Future Lifestyles Home, which was an attempt to challenge the idea that all design for disabled people had to be grim and medical and bereft of any aesthetic goals. What was created was a stylish, accessible, contemporary apartment with a living room, a kitchen and a bathroom.

Speaking to all the people involved in the design I was struck by their commitment to ensuring that good design was for everyone irrespective of impairment. The project was led by three occupational therapists supported in consultation with a panel of disabled people. The project leader was clear about the aim of designing a home that put a range of products in context, not on a stand surrounded by sales people, and to show what looks good for a disabled couple with aspirations.

The flat addressed the issue of the impact that effective product design can have on specialist equipment. There is, I was told, “a parallel universe which creates specialist products”. The need is great for disabled product designers to emerge and to be encouraged. One such person is Adam Thomas who is a kitchen designer and a wheelchair user.

Adam’s kitchens are accessible and elegant. He is very critical of most design for disabled people, deriding them as, “nasty, cheap and horrible”. Access does not have to sacrifice design flair. Such touches as an illuminated extractor for people with a visual impairment simply beautifies his kitchens. The real issue is for the distance between mainstream design and this parallel universe to be bridged. Inclusive products are not niche, they are the norm.   For example in the bathroom/wet room needs should manifest themselves not as chromium monstrosities but in stylish fixtures. Bathing is not beige. Features such as voice controlled controls are not a special need but an intelligent, sophisticated use of modern technology.

In most designs for the disabled person, “aesthetic considerations are way down the list”. Pleasing design for the disabled consumer must be affordable as the bulk of disabled people live on low incomes. The need is to get in at the start of the design process and prodding designers and manufacturers in the direction of inclusivity and the stylish artefacts that should emerge. Yet, something more revolutionary could emerge through this process, a complete re-envisioning of traditional design norms into shapes that meet our  real needs.

If specialist equipment is needed it should have the same emphasis on good design. Yet, when asked to cite an example of norms being challenged to produce items that meet a disabled person’s remit, the only product that I can think of are the “Good Grips”, range of kitchen equipment. Here is a set of designs that both meet a particular need but are also useful for all. Why is this so rare? Maybe, the innate conservatism of manufacture where, “we know what we like and we like what we know”, holds sway. However, even in a market economy, products that enable will surely sell.

Again, design academia does not give a sufficient emphasis to inclusion and exclusion adhering to able-bodied homogeneous design values. Too often the approach adopted has been piecemeal, well intentioned paternalism not as a central tenet of teaching good design. Added to which negative perceptions of disabled people abound making it seem as if the last thing we would appreciate is style. Disabled people need to inhabit a world where there is an emphasis on both form and function but also aesthetics, our aesthetics. Everyone has an interest in good design. Disabled people have until now rarely had the luxury of choosing and creating good design.