Sometimes, objects designed for one purpose have hidden benefits that the designers never dreamed of.
For example, when I walk on the beach, my exercise regimen is enhanced by the presence of – who would have believed it? – recycling bins. The bins give me an opportunity to bend and stretch, as I gather up any cast-off cups, bottles or broken beach toys I find along my route. A cleaner environment and better health: it’s a win-win situation.
Creating products and spaces that are flexible enough to benefit different people in different ways is not a new idea. In fact, it is the central concept behind Universal Design – a school of thought that promotes consideration of the full range of human diversity, including physical, perceptual and cognitive abilities, as well as different body sizes and shapes.
Universal Design takes today’s dominant marketing model and turns it on its head. Rather than creating things geared toward a specific niche market, it encourages casting a wide net, and targeting the widest possible range of people, with the widest spectrum of human abilities.
The inclusive philosophy that inspires Universal Design devotees inspires me too – especially when I think of the children I work with every day, for whom a walk on the beach is as difficult to imagine as a walk on the moon.
Good Design Opens Doors for People with Disabilities
As a therapeutic professional at Keren Or – Jerusalem’s premier school for blind children with multiple disabilities – I know that even a small act of independence can have a huge emotional impact. While our wonderful caregivers accompany our students through most of their daily tasks, it’s a cause for celebration when a well-designed device allows a child to do something they weren’t able to do before.
Take five-year-old Amichai, for example. He was born with brain damage which caused him severe motor and vision impairment and has very limited movements. Amichai recently experienced the joy of sitting in – and driving – a children's jeep. Rather than a steering wheel, the jeep was fitted with a special switch. Under the supervision of his therapist, Amichai "hit the road" in the school corridor, experiencing the joy and excitement of independent movement.
A more mundane “travel” story concerns the specially-designed products that help food travel successfully into the mouth of a child struggling with issues of motor control.
The availability of feeding utensils designed specifically for physically challenged children – from feeding trays stabilized with suction cups, to easy-to-grasp spoons, to cups that minimize spills – allows children to experience self-mastery, and the pride that comes from developmental progress.
The world benefits from products designed to help people overcome challenges. But it also benefits when products intended for the general community make everyday tasks easier, or make everyday spaces more accessible to special populations.
I think of this on the beach, as I pass the ramp that allows people in wheelchairs – and parents with strollers – to avoid the stairs, and access the paved walking path near the shore.
I think of this whenever I activate the “electric” eye that turns on the water in an automatic faucet, or use an automatic, towel-free hand dryer that is situated close to the ground. This is another win-win situation, saving trees and water and accessibility for everyone!
I can walk the stairs down to the beach. I can reach up to grab a towel from a dispenser. I have the manual dexterity to turn on an old-fashioned faucet. But not everyone is so lucky.
How lucky I am to live in the world in which Universal Design is helping people who are not exactly like me can experience more independence, and feel more at home.