Book Review: Design Meets Disability – Graham Pullin

By Jade Fell

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The MIT Press, September 2011, 368 pp, ISBN 978-0-262516-74-7, £17.95 paperback

From their humble beginnings, balanced on the noses of monks and scholars in the 13th century, eyeglasses have undergone a fantastic transformation. The handheld lorgnette donned by ladies in the 19th century gave way to the inexpensive pince-nez of the early 20th  – but It was not until the latter half of the century that eyeglasses were transformed from a mere medical necessity to something more.

In Design Meets Disability, author Graham Pullin approaches assistive technology from the point-of-view of the end user, encouraging designing for the person, rather than the disability. He advocates for moving away from the cold, clinical, “pink moulded plastic” of the 20th century and into something new, unique, and desirable. If assistive technology is to become a large piece of someone’s life why should its purpose be purely functional? Is there not room in the marketplace for fashionable, assistive technology?

By embracing the design culture of the fashion industry, eyeglasses were transformed from something purely functional, to something beautiful – so much so that by the 21st century able-eyed teenagers were popping out the lenses of thick rimmed glasses to add to their everyday outfits. So, if eyeglasses can make the move from medical necessity, to fashion accessory then why can’t the same be true of hearing aids, prosthetic limbs, wheelchairs and communication aids? Of course it can, Pullin suggests, when design and disability meet.

Throughout the course of the book Pullin explores new forms of design for disability – where appearance and functionality complement the results from clinical trials – and meets with prolific designers behind ground-breaking disability design projects. Design, he argues, should be inspired by disability, allowing the two fields to combine to enrich one another.

The meeting of design and disability has further benefits – as well as making designs for disabled people desirable, it can also allow for the making of inclusive designs, which are, not just desirable to all, but useful to all. As explored in this month’s Engineering & Technology magazine by Tereza Pultarova, who looks at the role of digital technology in catering for the needs of blind people. The high-tech age, she suggests, has brought about the “biggest improvement in the lives of blind people since the invention of the white cane” – and this is not purely through new devices being created to cater to this specific group of people, but in making ordinary technology accessible for everyone, including blind people.

Think about the different ways everyday technology and devices function that can be of assistance to disabled people – these days all phones vibrate, which allows for those with limited hearing to know when they are being contacted, while functions included in the Google Search and Chrome smartphone applications allow users to communicate with their phones and tablets using their voice. Design for disability does not, and indeed, should not, have to be exclusive. Take, for example, Pullin’s presentation of watches designed for blind people –some of the designs are seriously beautiful – there are textured watches and those which vibrate, or prick the wearer to tell the time. These watches are not just useful for those with limited sight, but anyone who wants to option of checking the time in a meeting without appearing rude!

As Tom Pey, chief executive of the Royal London Society for Blind People points out in this month’s article: “If technology is simply for blind people, it is doomed to fail. What you need to do is to design the technology in a way that can benefit everybody.”

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